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Beacon Island
Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island

Beacon Island
Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
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Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Rare 2000-Year-Old Sundial Sheds New Light on Ancient Roman Politics
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When a Roman citizen named Marcus Novius Tubula won an important election some 2000 years ago, he didn’t have the technology to tweet about it. He opted for more permanent brag, and commissioned a marble sundial inscribed with both his name and position.

Paid for with the politician’s own money, the timekeeping device served as a public monument in his hometown, the small Italian municipality of Interamna Lirenas. But as millennia passed, memories of the proud politician faded, only to be recently revived by a group of Cambridge University archaeologists who discovered the marker still intact, according to National Geographic.

Located in Italy’s Liri Valley, Interamna Lirenas was likely founded in the fourth century BCE and abandoned by the sixth century CE. Archaeologists have been conducting a fieldwork project at the ancient site since 2010, trying to figure out how the town was affected by Rome's shift from republic to empire.

They discovered the 2000-year-old sundial—one of only a handful known to have survived the millennia—while excavating a roofed theater. Lying facedown by one of its street-side entrances, the sundial had probably been overlooked by scavengers, who picked apart the Roman town for building materials during and after the medieval era.

A 2000-year-old Roman sundial, discovered by Cambridge University archaeologists in the ancient Italian town of Interamna Lirenas.
A 2000-year-old Roman sundial, discovered by Cambridge University archaeologists in the ancient Italian town of Interamna Lirenas.
Alessandro Launaro

Experts think the sundial once sat atop a pillar in the nearby forum. Carved from limestone, it has a concave face that’s engraved with lines and curves that indicated both daylight hours and the current season. Its shadow-casting iron needle is mostly gone.

“Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived, and of those, only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all—so this really is a special find,” said Alessandro Launaro, a classics lecturer at Cambridge University, in a statement. “Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.”

Based on the inscription’s lettering and other factors, experts were able to date the sundial to around the middle of the first century BCE. And thanks to its engraving, they know that Marcus Novius Tubula held the office of Plebian Tribune. These officials were non-aristocratic men who provided governmental checks and balances.

Until the Republic fell, members of the Plebian Tribune enjoyed a sizeable amount of prestige. Archaeologists were surprised to learn that Marcus Novius Tubula—who hailed from a no-name town—was one of them.

“In this sense,” Launaro added, “the discovery of the inscribed sundial not only casts new light on the place Interamna Lirenas occupied within a broader network of political relationships across Roman Italy, but it is also a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome’s own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to.”

[h/t National Geographic]

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