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Mike Pitts
Mike Pitts

Remains of Powerful Women Uncovered at Stonehenge

Mike Pitts
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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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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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