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Mike Pitts

Remains of Powerful Women Uncovered at Stonehenge

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Mike Pitts

Stonehenge is many things to many people: a historical riddle, a sacred space, or even a must-see tourist destination. But it’s also a cemetery, one where newly unearthed inhabitants tell a different version of British history. The newest findings from the site are reported in the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine. 

"In almost every depiction of Stonehenge by artists and TV re-enactors we see lots of men, a man in charge, and few or no women," archaeologist and British Archaeology editor Mike Pitts said in an interview with Discovery News. But Pitts says those depictions have got it all wrong. Pitts was co-director of a 2008 excavation of the chalk pit called Aubrey Hole 7, where team members recovered the remains of at least 14 high-powered women and nine men.

Identifying the sexes and ages of the deceased was an especially complicated task. For one thing, they’d all been cremated. For another, this was not the first time some of these bones had been dug up. Earlier excavations as far back as the 1920s had found cremated remains at Aubrey Hole 7, but technology at the time was too limited to do much with them. The remains were rather unceremoniously tossed into sacks and eventually dumped out and reburied at the site, along with a lead plaque explaining the decision. It’s easy to tell these women were important, Pitts told Discovery News, because, well, look where they were buried. “Anyone buried at Stonehenge is likely to have been special in some way: high status families, possessors of special skills or knowledge, ritual or political leaders." 

When Pitts’ team returned to Aubrey Hole 7, they had no idea what they’d find there, or if what they found would be usable. The authors write in the British Archaeology article that they knew there was a chance that they’d lift the turf and find nothing but powder.

They didn’t find powder, but they did find a mess. Everyone’s bone fragments were scattered and mixed together, like a pile of very old LEGOs. The team pulled up 45 kilograms, or 99 pounds, of jumbled remains. 

The arduous task of analyzing those remains went to Christie Willis, a Ph.D. student at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. Back in the lab, Willis picked through the remains, looking for recognizable bone fragments. Some human bones, like those in the skull, are hardier than others, and therefore make more reliable records of their owners. By looking for petrous bones (found near the ear canal) and occipital bones (found at the back of the head), Willis was able to identify the remains of 23 individuals. Computed tomography (CT) scans further identified 14 of those individuals as women.

"The archaeology now shows that as far as the burials go, women were as prominent there as men,” Pitts told Discovery News. “This contrasts with the earlier burial mounds, where men seem to be more prominent." 

The article’s authors note that the inhabitants of Aubrey Hole 7 seem to have lived relatively decent lives. Very few bones showed signs of violence or trauma, and most of the deceased seem to have died of old age. 

An additional report on the findings is forthcoming in the journal Antiquity, and Willis intends to incorporate her analysis of the remains into her thesis.

All images are courtesy of Mike Pitts.

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For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
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The Colosseum’s nosebleed seats likely didn’t provide plebeians with great views of gladiatorial contests and other garish spectacles. But starting in November, they’ll give modern-day tourists a bird's-eye look at one of the world’s most famous ancient wonders, according to The Telegraph.

The tiered amphitheater’s fifth and final level will be opened up to visitors for the first time in several decades, following a multi-year effort to clean, strengthen, and restore the crumbling attraction. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 25 people to the stadium’s far-flung reaches, and through a connecting corridor that’s never been opened to the public. (It contains the vestiges of six Roman toilets, according to The Local.) At the summit, which hovers around 130 feet above the gladiator pit below, tourists will get a rare glimpse at the stadium’s sloping galleries, and of the nearby Forum and Palatine Hill.

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s best seats were marble benches that lined the amphitheater’s bottom level. These were reserved for senators, emperors, and other important parties. Imperial functionaries occupied the second level, followed by middle-class spectators, who sat behind them. Traders, merchants, and shopkeepers enjoyed the show from the fourth row, and the very top reaches were left to commoners, who had to clamber over steep stairs and through dark tunnels to reach their sky-high perches.

Beginning November 1, 2017, visitors will be able to book guided trips to the Colosseum’s top levels. Reservations are required, and the tour will cost around $11, on top of the normal $14 admission cost. (Gladiator fights, thankfully, are not included.)

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Sunken City in the Mediterranean
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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

Early on July 21, 365 CE, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake shook the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a powerful tsunami. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was damaged, towns crumbled on the island of Crete, and the Roman port city of Neapolis, located on the coast of North Africa, was largely swallowed by the wave, according to historical records. Now, after being hidden under water for more than 16 centuries, the remains of Neapolis have been discovered by archaeologists off the coast of northeast Tunisia. This, according to the AFP, confirms accounts that the city was a casualty of the ancient natural disaster.

Following several years of exploration, researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy have discovered nearly 50 acres of watery ruins near the modern-day city of Nabeul. They include streets, monuments, homes, mosaics, and around 100 tanks used to make garum, a fish-based sauce that was so popular in ancient Rome and Greece that it's been likened to ketchup. 

These containers suggest that Neapolis was likely a major producer of garum, making the salty condiment an integral part of the city's economy. "Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum," expedition head Mounir Fantar told the AFP.

Neapolis ("new city" in Greek) was originally founded in the 5th century BCE. While it was an important Mediterranean hub, its name doesn't appear too often in ancient writings. According to The Independent, it may because the city sided with the ancient city-state of Carthage—founded in the 9th century BCE by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians—in the last of a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, against Rome.

The Third Punic War stretched from 149 to 146 BCE, and led to the burning of Carthage. (It was later rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar.) Neapolis may have been punished for its wayward allegiance, which may explain why it's rarely mentioned in historical accounts.

You can view a video of the city's ruins below.

[h/t AFP]

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