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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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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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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." 

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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]

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