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Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

A 3500-Year-Old ‘Lunch Box’ Discovered in Switzerland Once Contained Bronze Age Cereal

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Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Around 3500 years ago, a traveler forging their way through a mountain pass in the Swiss Alps may have dropped their lunch box. As the International Business Times reports, archaeologists studying a Bronze Age wooden container discovered some 8500 feet above sea level found molecular traces of ancient "cereal": wheat and barley or rye grains. These contents could help experts learn more about how farming emerged in Europe during the Bronze Age, according to the researchers' new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

The circular wooden container was discovered in a melting ice patch in 2012. Its base was made from Swiss pine and its rim from willow sewn together with European larch twigs. Its lightweight frame would have made it ideal for toting across the Alps.

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox" was discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox," discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox," discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Artifacts made from organic materials like wood often don’t survive in the archaeological record, making the box an extremely rare find. Noting a mysterious residue on its central surface, researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York used microscopic and molecular analyses to see what kind of food the container once held.

Like all organic material, plants degrade over time, but thanks to new advances in technology, archaeologists can sometimes identify the lipids and proteins left behind on empty vessels. This can help them learn what people were eating and drinking long ago.

Researchers were expecting to find a milk residue left by porridge or some other type of food, so they were surprised to discover lipid-based biomarkers called alkylresorcinols that came from wheat or rye grain.

"One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants," said the paper's lead author, University of York bioarchaeologist André Colonese, in a news release. "There are only a few, and they do not preserve very well in ancient artifacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study, as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains—it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artifacts."

The domestication and transmission of cereals was important to the emergence of farming, but archaeologists rarely find direct evidence of grain's early use. This discovery could help them learn more about how farming developed in Eurasia, and how important cereals were for both farmers and the general economy.

[h/t Archaeology]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Divers in Michigan Discover 93-Year-Old Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Huron
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On the evening of September 21, 1924, the cargo steamship SS Clifton met its end in Lake Huron while carrying a 2200-ton load of crushed stone from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to Detroit. The vessel was likely caused to sink by a gale, and the disaster resulted in the deaths of 25 crew members. Bits of wreckage were later found, but the freighter’s resting place ultimately remained a mystery. Now, more than 90 years later, the Associated Press reports that the SS Clifton’s location at the bottom of the Great Lake has been confirmed.

Scuba diver David Trotter—who’s reportedly located more than 90 Great Lakes shipwrecks—discovered the SS Clifton in September 2016, following a 30-year search. He waited to publicly share the news until his company, Undersea Research Associates, was able to investigate and document the steamship's remains last summer.

Trotter had spent decades searching for the SS Clifton, but finding it was ultimately a matter of serendipity, he says. In June 2016, Trotter and his team were surveying two wrecks—the schooners Venus and Minnedosa, which sank in 1887 and 1905, respectively—when they spotted yet another submerged ship. They logged its coordinates, but only managed to get a closer look several months later, in September 2016, during a quick dive trip.

GoPro footage confirmed that the ship in question was a whaleback steamer, a unique type of 19th century cargo steamship with low, rounded hulls, decks, and deckhouses, which were designed to cut down on water and wind resistance. “The Clifton was the only whaleback ship left in Lake Huron that hadn’t already been found,” Trotter said, according to WZZM-TV. “There was no question we had found the Clifton.”

The USS Clifton sits on its side, around 100 miles south of where some shipwreck hunters initially believed it had sunk. Its bow is shattered, likely from the collision with the lake’s bottom, while the stern, inside paneling, and architecture remain well-preserved. Divers also spotted an unopened suitcase, and signage inside the ship.

So far, there isn't any clear mechanical evidence as to why the USS Clifton sank, but Trotter's team did find “that the self-unloading mechanism was still in position,” he says. This was “an interesting discovery because we now realize that the unloading mechanism didn’t break free, causing the Clifton to have instability, resulting in her sinking.”

Trotter hopes to explore the USS Clifton’s engine room and cabins, and to bring the suitcase ashore to examine its contents. Until then, he can remain satisfied that he’s finally solved a mystery that had eluded him for much of his career.

[h/t Associated Press]

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell


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