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6 Archaeological Finds Made by Badgers

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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.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Skeleton of the Pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy
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The skeleton of a famous pirate dead for more than three centuries may have been discovered. This week, researchers in Massachusetts announced they'd found a human skeleton near the wreck of a ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717—and they think it just might be the remains of New England's greatest pirate, Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy.

Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Following the War of Spanish Succession, Bellamy relocated to Massachusetts in 1715.

It's said that Bellamy fell in love with a local beauty named Maria Hallett, whose parents didn't want their daughter marrying a lowly sailor. This bit of folklore might be baseless—although historians do know that a young woman with that name did live in Eastham, Mass. at the time. But in any case, Bellamy soon left the colony to pursue a get-rich scheme.

He and a friend had learned that a treasure-laden Spanish fleet had recently sunk near the Florida Keys, so the duo promptly headed south. After failing to salvage any loot, Bellamy turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work: He captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. Forbes magazine has calculated that all the loot Bellamy seized would be worth $120 million in modern U.S. dollars.


Gold recovered from wreck of the Whydah.
Theodore Scott, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Despite the dark nickname bestowed by others—and his considerable net worth—Bellamy hated wealthy elites with a passion and liked to call himself the "Robin Hood of the Sea".

The flagship of Bellamy's fleet was the 300-ton Whydah, a former British slave vessel. In 1717, the pirate took the ship up to New England. Then, on April 26, 1717, a wicked storm sank the Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet. Most of the crew—including Bellamy—went down with it.

In 1984, marine explorer Barry Clifford and his diving team found the ship's wreckage. More than 200,000 artifacts from the site have since been taken ashore. To give them a proper home, Clifford established the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth in 2016.

This past November, researchers at the museum found part of a human skeleton inside a hardened block of sediment they'd taken from the Whydah's general area a few years ago. The slab also contained a belt, some cufflinks, and—most interestingly—a pistol. According to an Associated Press report, this gun is believed to have been Bellamy's.

Forensic scientists at the University of New Haven plan to compare DNA from the bones against that of a living Bellamy descendant in England. Whether the skeleton turns out to be the famous captain's or somebody else's, though, it'll most likely be interred—eventually. On February 19, the bones will be on display during a press conference.

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