CLOSE
iStock
iStock

6 Archaeological Finds Made by Badgers

iStock
iStock

When archaeological sites and artifacts are found by accident, it's often by humans stumbling over a skull in the woods or unearthing an artifact while doing some gardening. But we can’t rule out the utility of badgers for finding artifacts and skeletons—or the annoyance of discovering that the little jerks have ruined our stratigraphy with their burrows. Although their penchant for digging holes can help researchers identify previously unknown sites, badgers mix up artifacts from different chronological layers.

Here are six recent and historic finds from around the world that involved the lowly badger. These are all from Europe and America, each of which boasts its own species of badger, but archaeologists around the world have had to deal with site disturbances by the critters. Asia has the Asian and Chinese badgers, as well as four different kinds of ferret-badgers, whereas Africa, India, and the Middle East are home to the honey badger. In the end, one thing is clear: Archaeology badger don’t care if it's mucking up our knowledge of the ancient past.

1. THE GRAVE OF A 19TH-CENTURY TEENAGE GIRL // ALBERTA, CANADA

Last year, a farmer in Viking, Alberta, found a human skull sticking out of a badger hole. The police were called, but it was quickly determined not to be CSI-worthy. The skull seemed to belong to a teenage girl who died and was buried in the early 19th century, complete with European-style clothing, rings, and thousands of beads. Since there was no major Native occupation of that area of Alberta then, archaeologists suspect she died while traveling between European trading posts and was buried in a shallow, hastily dug grave.

2. MULTIPLE MEDIEVAL WARRIORS // STOLPE, GERMANY

In 2013, a couple of German artists who were watching a badger build its den saw what they thought were human bones in the hole. Getting closer, they noticed ancient jewelry and called the archaeological authorities. Turns out, this clueless badger had made its home among eight people who died in the 12th century. Based on the artifacts and historical records of Slavic-Christian interaction during this period, archaeologists think two of the dead may have been warriors. Sculptor Hendrikje Ring, who spotted the badger den, was keen to give credit where credit was due, telling Der Spiegel, “This doesn’t make him [the badger] an archaeologist, but he’s the one who discovered it.”

3. STONEHENGE CREMATION BURIAL // WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND

Wiltshire Council, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service

In January, a British badger made a remarkable find of a Bronze Age cremation grave just miles from Stonehenge. The animal had uncovered the ceramic cremation urn and scattered bits of it around the hole. When real archaeologists delved into the discovery in Netheravon, Wilshire, with a proper excavation, they found a copper chisel with a bone handle (seen in the image above), an archer’s wrist guard, and shaft straighteners near the human cremains—evidence that the deceased may have made or used archery equipment. Archaeologist Richard Osgood told the BBC that “we would never have known these objects were in there, so there’s a small part of me that is quite pleased the badger did this.”

The badger made its mark on the site in more ways than one, as you can see from the faint claw marks on this pottery shard.

Wiltshire Council, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service

4. IRON AGE TO ANGLO-SAXON SETTLEMENT // FRISBY ON THE WREAKE, ENGLAND

In the early 1980s, a dog disappeared down a rabbit hole in Frisby. Rather than finding Wonderland, the dog led its owner to ancient pottery shards. Fast forward nearly 20 years to the late 1990s, when archaeologists working in the same area were presented with a treasure trove of flints, butchered animal bone, slag metal, and pottery shards; badgers had deposited them at the entrance to their many dens. Between the badgers and the eroding sand quarry, archaeologists had to work quickly to recover what they think is a settlement occupied continuously from the Iron Age through Roman times, and possibly during the Anglo-Saxon period. “The whole scenario,” archaeologist Brian Tompson wrote in a 1999 report, “demonstrates what badgers and dog walking can do for fieldwork!”

5. NATIVE AMERICAN BURIALS // NEBRASKA, UNITED STATES

Badgers are not a new phenomenon on archaeological sites, although it’s been only recently that they’ve worked their way into news items and research articles. In a recent reminiscence piece, archaeologist Ralph Solecki recalls excavating a Native American burial site in Nebraska with archaeologist Gus Kivett in the 1940s. (Such an excavation would be unlikely or even illegal today due to a web of legal protections governing Native American burials, archaeological sites, and artifacts, which were created in response to centuries of pillaging.) It stands out in his memory, he writes, because “the cemetery area had been infested with badgers … Recording the position of the burials was made difficult by the fact that the animals frequently dragged away the long bones into their holes.”

6. STONE TOOLS IN AN ANCIENT SHELTER // PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES

The main excavation area in the Meadowcroft rockshelter. Image credit: James Foreman via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the most famous—and debated—sites in the U.S. is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which has its share of badger activity. Meadowcroft was revealed as an archaeological site with significant history in the 1950s by farmer Albert Miller, but he didn't excavate until 1967. “In that year,” archaeologist James Adovasio and colleagues write, “his enlargement of a badger (?) burrow yielded lithic debitage [shards from stone tool production], shell and faunal remains confirming his suspicions of aboriginal occupation at the shelter.” (Considering the question mark, Adovasio seems unclear whether a badger was responsible or not.)

Professional excavation has continued on and off for decades because Meadowcroft is key to our understanding of the settlement of North America. Its very early dates—16,000 to 19,000 years ago, based on carbon-14 analysis of organic material—are still somewhat controversial among archaeologists, but have opened up a larger discussion about the geographic spread of America’s earliest settlers.

This story originally ran in 2016.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
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." 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
iStock
iStock

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]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios