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C. Wiktorowicz, et.al. Journal of Archaeological Science 78 (January 2017) © 2016 Elsevier Ltd
C. Wiktorowicz, et.al. Journal of Archaeological Science 78 (January 2017) © 2016 Elsevier Ltd

Archaeologists Find Traces of Human Organs and Disease in Iron-Age Pottery

C. Wiktorowicz, et.al. Journal of Archaeological Science 78 (January 2017) © 2016 Elsevier Ltd
C. Wiktorowicz, et.al. Journal of Archaeological Science 78 (January 2017) © 2016 Elsevier Ltd

Shattered pots and other artifacts have much to teach us about vanished civilizations, but, sometimes, it’s what’s inside that counts. Researchers have identified molecular traces of diseased human organs inside clay pots from the Iron Age. They describe their discovery in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science.

DKrieger via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The settlement at Heuneburg in modern-day Germany was part of one of the earliest cities ever built among the Alps. At the height of its success during the 6th century BCE, Heuneburg was home to more than 5000 people. Those people left behind stone walls and mud-brick buildings, fields and burial mounds.

Nestled within one of those burial mounds were six ceramic jars. By the time archaeologists reached them, the jars were smashed, and their contents had decomposed beyond recognition—at least to the naked eye.

A team of three archaeologists and one biochemist found a way to reconstruct what was once there. They took teeny samples from each pot, ground them up, and washed them in a chemical solution to collect any proteins that might remain. They then compared the 166 different compounds they’d found with a large protein database, looking for matches.

What they found was surprising, to say the least. Some of the proteins came from human blood. Others were from human organ tissue. Still others belonged to a virus called Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). This tick-borne disease starts with a sudden fever and headache, progresses to vomiting and nosebleeds, and can end in uncontrolled bleeding and death. It still kills people today across a wide region stretching from western Asia through southern Africa.

The presence of organ and blood proteins inside the jars suggests that the people of Heuneburg cared lovingly for their dead, interring each organ in its own fine receptacle.

The researchers aren’t sure what the virus’s appearance in Heuneburg might mean; we’ve never found hemorrhagic fever on ancient artifacts before.

Lead author Conner Wiktorowicz, of Purdue University, says his team’s methods and findings open new portals into the world of the dead.

"What have archaeologists been missing regarding social practices and the use of pottery vessels in the past?" he said in Science magazine. “I can’t imagine all of the exciting new findings other researchers will make."

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Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Finally Identify a 4000-Year-Old Lost City in Iraq
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2016, archaeologists excavating in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age city near the modern village of Bassetki. It was large, and it appeared to have been occupied for more than 1000 years, from around 2200 to 1200 BCE. Ancient Mesopotamia, home to the earliest civilizations on Earth, had many cities. So which one was it?

The mystery remained until recently, when a language expert at the University of Heidelberg translated clay cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site in 2017. The archaeologists had discovered Mardaman, a once-important city mentioned in ancient texts, which had been thought lost to time.

The inscriptions were likely written around 1250 BCE when Mardaman (also called Mardama) was a part of the Assyrian Empire. According to the University of Tübingen archaeologists who unearthed the tablets, they describe the "administrative and commercial affairs" between the citizens of Mardaman and their Assyrian governor Assur-nasir. The account led the researchers to believe that the area where the tablets were recovered was once the governor's palace.

Excavation site in Iraq.
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

Situated on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Syria, Mardaman was a bustling commercial hub in its day. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, but after it was toppled by the Turukkaeans from the neighboring Zagros Mountains sometime in the 18th century BCE, it was never mentioned again in ancient texts. Experts had assumed that marked the end of Marmadan. This latest discovery shows that the city recovered from that dark period, and still existed 500 years later.

"The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end," lead archeologist Peter Pfälzner said in a press statement. "The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BCE."

This lost chapter of history may never have been uncovered if the clay tablets were stored any other way. Archeologists found the 92 slabs in a pottery vessel that had been sealed with a thick layer of clay, perhaps to preserve the contents for future generations. The state in which they were found suggests they were stashed away shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed.

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Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
King Tut's Tomb Doesn't Contain Hidden Rooms After All
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

When Howard Carter first entered King Tut's tomb in 1922, there was a lot to uncover. Unlike most royal tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, Tut's had remained sealed and untouched for centuries, providing a pristine treasure trove for those who would eventually stumble upon it. Now, nearly a century later, archaeologists are accepting the idea that King Tut's tomb may have no more secrets left to reveal: New radar scans show that there are no hidden rooms beyond the main burial chamber, NBC News reports.

The theory that Tut's tomb contains secret rooms first emerged in 2015. British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that high-definition laser scans conducted by Japanese and American scientists hinted at the existence of a second tomb on the other side of the chamber's walls, and that the hidden tomb possibly belonged to Queen Nefertiti, Tutankhamun's stepmother. The theory sparked excitement in Egyptology circles, but its popularity was short-lived. Radar experts cast doubts on the research saying that what appeared to be a wall or a room could easily be a geologic feature. Archaeologists and Egyptologists began calling for more evidence.

The newest study on the matter will likely debunk the hidden tomb theory for good. According to findings by Italian researchers presented at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, ground-penetrating radar shows conclusively that there are no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to Tut's tomb. The new scan represents the most comprehensive radar survey of the area ever conducted.

Even without hidden rooms, Tut's tomb and the artifacts it contained make up one of the world's most impressive archaeological sites. The public will be able to view 4500 of the young ruler's possessions when they go on display at a new museum in Cairo in 2022.

[h/t NBC News]

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