3D Modeling Lets You Step Inside a 13th-Century Chapel Filled With Human Remains

Courtesy the University of Sheffield
Courtesy the University of Sheffield

In medieval Britain, if human remains were disturbed in the grave or disinterred, they would be removed from the cemetery and placed in what was called a charnel chapel, a religious structure that often had walls stacked high with human remains that temporarily lacked a proper resting place. Charnel houses were popular in England between the 13th and 16th centuries (and are still used in some countries). Only two original charnel chapels are undisturbed today in the UK. One, the Rothwell charnel chapel, is now becoming much more accessible to the public through digital modeling.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project at the University of Sheffield is creating 3D models of the chapel so that other researchers and the public can explore the medieval room for themselves. The Rothwell site is the most complete charnel chapel in the UK—most were repurposed, dismantled, or buried during the Reformation—but it's not a highly accessible site. Besides, the room is filled with the bones of hundreds of people, and visitors could pose a threat to its preservation.

Studying the chapel can "advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period," lead Sheffield researcher Lizzy Craig-Atkins explained in a university press release. English charnel chapels are not well studied, since the largely Catholic practice ceased during the Reformation, and much of the evidence of them disappeared. However, the Sheffield team has recently identified 60 potential charnel sites across England.

In predominantly Protestant England, "as opposed to much of mainland Europe," the project website explains, "the practice of charnelling and charnel chapel construction, and all the devotional and liturgical purposes they held, were forgotten." And this makes them largely "a neglected area of funerary archaeology," the researchers point out. There's some evidence that charnel chapels served as confessionals, and that there were priests assigned to pray for the souls of members of the public. But little is known about the British structures, especially compared to their European counterparts.

By sharing their "digital ossuary" online, the team is making it easier for researchers to study the practice of charnelling in England and the role it played in medieval religious practices. And even if you have no stake in studying medieval religion in England, it's still really fun to explore an underground room full of 13th-century skulls.

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

iStock
iStock

Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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