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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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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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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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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