Where we attempt to fill you in on everything they forgot to teach you at school

Ancient Humans Carved Geometric Art Half a Million Years Ago

Earliest Engraving

After analysing a collection of 166 freshwater mussel shells found at Trinil, on the banks of the Bengawan Solo river in East Java - the site of the famous 'Java Man' find in 1886, researchers have come to a stunning conclusion:

Using an electron microscope, scientists found a zigzag set of grooves incised into one shell. The marks push back the date for the earliest known geometric engravings by our ancestors by at least 300,000 years.

According to one of the researchers, Wil Roebroeks of Lieden University in The Netherlands, "the simple zigzag on the shell is the earliest engraving known thus far in the history of humankind. But: we have no clue why somebody made it half a million years ago, and we explicitly refrain from speculating on it" in terms of art or symbolism".

Link: Oldest engraving rewrites view of human history

Abstract: Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving

The Only Pie Graph About Pyramids You Will Ever Need

Pyramid Pie Chart

Looking for a better understanding of ancient pyramids? Be sure to consult this handy pie chart for all you need to know...

(via @andrewducker)

Archaeologists Uncover the World's Largest Ancient Stone Block at Baalbek

Trilithon stone at Baalbek

The above image, of the “Hajjar al-Hibla” (Stone of the Pregnant Woman) in the quarry at Baalbek, Lebanon, is one of my favourite historical pictures ever. The massive monolith has widely been regarded as the heaviest stone block ever cut by humans, with an estimated weight of around 1250 tons.

Little did we know, however, that a bigger monolith lurked nearby. In fact, right beside it. Archaeologists have excavated another block beside the Hajjar al-Hibla, that dwarfs it, clocking in at an almost unimaginable 1650 tons:

Below the “Hajjar al-Hibla” and directly beside of it, there is another megalithic stone block, even bigger than the first one: it measures ca. 19,60x6x5,5m. In order to determine the exact height, the trenches should be extended in one of the next archaeological expeditions at the site. The second block weighs 1,650 tons. Archaeologists concluded that the block was meant to be transported without being cut. This means, that it is the biggest known ancient stone block.

And here it is, lying to the immediate right of its more well-known sibling.

Largest monolith in the world

I'm calling it.

Is the Phaistos Disc an Homage to Motherhood?

The Phaistos Disc

Is the Phaistos Disc an homage to motherhood?  Academia is undecided.

Discovered in 1908 in the Minoan Palace-site dedicated to Phaistos – a Minoan deity – by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, the Phaistos disc has been an enigma for more than 100 years.  Oft written about, rarely understood, never truly deciphered, the Phaistos disc is a remnant of a civilisation long dead, a civilisation connected most intimately to classical Greece, and possibly even…Atlantis.

There are those who believe, with some credibility, that the great Atlantean society was in fact the Minoan peoples situated on the volcanic islands of Santorini and Crete.  Some researchers claim that the massive volcanic eruption centered in Santorini’s Thera, was the very same cataclysmic event described in Plato’s Criteas and Timeas, the event which caused the demise of the so-called island of Atlantis.  Details are scant, of course, since all of the modern conjecture about Atlantis is based on best guesses and ancient legends, but of the many Atlantis theories, the Minoan eruption theory is among the more believable.

Of course, all of that is moot, as it pertains to the Phaistos Disc, if we cannot understand what it says, and thus far we cannot.

The Phaistos Disc, much like other linguistic puzzles – such as the Voynich Manuscript – has been the focus of much study and debate, and until recently all theories about its content were on relatively equal footing.  To date there have been no less than 23 decipherment attempts, all of which claimed some measure of success.  Both linguistic and symbolic interpretations have been put forward, but none has offered any sign of a congruent, predictable language or system of communication…until now.

On October 20 of this year, Associate Director and Erasmus Coordinator of the Technological Education Institute of Crete, Gareth Owens, presented his own findings and theory about the meaning of the cryptic symbols imprinted on either side of the disc.  Owens claims to have deciphered most of the symbols and describes it as “the first Minoan CD-ROM featuring a prayer to a mother”.  He identifies several words emerging from the symbols, most pertaining to motherhood, and believes that it is an homage to a Minoan deity connected to fertility, pregnancy, and birth.

Owens’ confidence in his interpretation, which was a joint effort in conjunction with linguist and Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, Dr. John Coleman, lead him to claim that the Phaistos Disc can now be used as a Rosetta Stone for the ancient Minoan language.

The Phaistos Disc

Though, as with any ancient artifact of this nature, his theory isn’t accepted by all.  Researcher and expert on symbolism and ancient language traditions, and author of the book The Decipherment of the Phaistos Disc, Dilip Rajeev disagrees with Owens, calling his interpretation “implausible”.

The basis for this objection is in the assertion that the disc is not an alphabetic text, as Owen’s suggests, but is instead decipherable as a body of symbolic text, similar to traditional Chinese kanji.  The difference, according to Rajeev, is that symbolic characters depend on association with other characters to derive meaning.  For instance, when one symbol appears on its own, it can have a particular meaning, but when paired with other symbols that meaning changes, sometimes drastically.  In alphabetical texts, such associations are much less important.

When viewed this way, Owens’ interpretation of the disc is certainly called into question.  Though we’ve all heard these claims and counter claims before.  You’ll recall that the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript has been thought solved several times too, though in each case, as with Phaistos Disc, the claims are inevitably marred by competing theories and minor details in disagreement with each other.  It may be that these artefacts are truly indecipherable, after all, they’ve held their secrets this long.  No doubt though, researchers will continue to chip away at the meaning behind the symbols, and may, eventually, provide us with definitive explanations for these mysteries.

Breaking Rocks: Great Pyramid Vandals Get 5 Years Prison

Vandalism in the Great Pyramid

Late last year we covered the story of two German 'amateur archaeologists' who had chipped some stone off the wall in the relieving chambers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, with the goal of dating it to see if the orthodox timeline for the pyramid's construction held up. I noted at the time that despite their lack of credentials, the pair seemed to have official permission to do some research within the pyramid, and that heads might roll as a result.

Fast forward a year, and that is exactly what has happened:

An Egyptian court sentenced three Germans and six Egyptians to five years jail on Tuesday for stealing fragments of a pharaonic artifact from Cairo's Great Pyramid, a judicial source said.

A court in Giza, south of the capital, sentenced in absentia three Germans -- who had claimed they were researchers -- for stealing pieces of an ancient scroll bearing the name of the Pharaoh Khufu, as well as rock samples, the source said.

Six Egyptians, including three employees of the antiquities ministry, two pyramid guards and the director of a travel agency, were also jailed for five years for aiding the robbery, the source said.

I'm not sure what this "ancient scroll bearing the name of Khufu" is though - unless there is some confusion and they are referring to Khufu's name being written on the stone wall of the relieving chamber.

And the rolling heads may get bigger in the near future as well, with Zahi Hawass now under investigation over claims he helped the German vandals.


The Stone Town of Kuklica and its Permanent Residents

Stone dolls image

Macedonia is a place with a complicated history.  Like many countries in that region of Europe, it has been settled, invaded, conquered, and fought over for thousands of years.  It has been a subject of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and a sovereign state known as the Republic of Macedonia.  It has been part of the Kingdom of Serbia (also the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), then it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  And then the Nazis happened, and then the Communists, and then independence.  There’s hardly been a time when the region wasn’t undergoing change, politically.

Its tumultuous history notwithstanding, Macedonia is a gem bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania.  Today it boasts picturesque and sleepy little mountain towns, world class Slavic architecture, and living museums, like the city of Kratovo which finds itself situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano.

Very near Kratovo in the north east of Macedonia, there’s a small town called Kuklica, and that town has a story to tell.

Kuklica is a small town, housing no more than about 100 inhabitants.  At least, 100 living inhabitants.  For you see, according to some, Kuklica is the unchanging resting place of either a man who tried to marry two women on the same day, or many fallen soldiers; all of whom turned to stone.

Most famously, locals tell of a man who fell in love with two different women and was faced with the difficult choice of deciding which to marry.  According to the legend, he was unable to make the choice and instead decided to marry both women…on the same day.  He planned the wedding ceremonies in a beautiful meadow, one to occur in the morning, the other in the afternoon.  Unfortunately for all involved, during the first wedding, his second bride-to-be happened upon the first ceremony and, as would be expected, she objected to that particular union most adamantly.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, however, and in her rage she cursed everyone in attendance, casting them all into stone.

The other legend, somewhat less grandiose, suggests that the war-ravaged area, turned to wasteland, was prone to extreme cold, whereupon any and all soldiers travelling across the wastes were frozen and became of stone.

Stone dolls image

All of these formations or pillars – which number somewhere around 120 distinct examples, some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the human form – are on average the size of an adult human, some are pillar shaped (hence the notion that they’re people turned to stone) but many are simple near-pyramid shaped mounds.

You may choose to believe whichever one of those explanations as you want, and there are apparently other local legends to consider as well, but there are explanations that don’t invoke people turning to stone.

The stone dolls of Kuklica, as they’re often called, are known in geological circles as earth pyramids, or earth pillars (you’ll note the conspicuous absence of any reference to human origins).  It is largely believed by experts that they are the product of natural erosion – and the more conspiratorial among us roll our eyes on cue.

As mentioned above, Kratovo, the nearest city of any size, is built on top of a long-dead volcano.  In fact, the entire region was at one time part of a large volcanic system.  Most of the rock in the area is tuff (solidified ash) and volcanic rock, both of which are relatively soft.  But there are deposits of harder, older rock, such as andesite, and therein lays the explanation for the stone dolls.

Stone dolls image

According to Dr. Ivica Milevski, Associate Professor at the Institute of Geology, Faculty of Natural Science and Mathematics at the University "St. Cyril and Methodius" in Skopje, Macedonia, the earth pyramids are the result of a combination of wind and water erosion over thousands of years.[1]  He claims that the soft volcanic tuff is washed away at a much faster rate than the harder andesite underneath it, resulting in periodic mounds and pillars of harder rock remaining while the sediment is washed away.

It’s thought that this same process is responsible for the Manpupuner Rock formation in the Russian Urals (also known as the Seven Strong Men of Russia), though on a larger scale.

Of course, the scientific explanation, as always, is much more mundane than the colourful legends of old, but there’s no harm in imagining that the groom’s wedding guests are wishing they’d declined the invitation.


[1] Milevski I. (2000): Earth pyramids in Kuklica-near Kratovo. Geographical review No. 35, Skopje pp. 177-182 (in Macedonian) http://www.kuklica.50webs.com/?ItemID=C42D791DE738E046B3C544C635663B57&5FB5C74C1F31C34FBFF2F9FF7585D1AF=5,first


'Lost Civilisation' Built Massive Siberian Geoglyph Around 6000 Years Ago

Siberian Moose Geoglyph

A massive 275m-wide geoglyph found in the Ural Mountains predates the famous Nazca Lines by thousands of years, archaeologists have found. The giant moose-shaped structure was 'accidentally' discovered just three years ago by local researcher Alexander Shestakov while looking at satellite images of the area in Google Earth.

Initial fieldwork found simple techniques were used to create the moose, with turf and earth 10-metres-wide dug out to make its shape before being filled with stones. 'The figure would initially have looked white and slightly shiny against the green grass background,' he said.

Different methods were deloyed to make the various parts of the geoglyph; for instance, a mix of clay and crushed stone was used to make the hooves. When part of the hind leg was excavated, archaeologists found the largest stones were on the edges, with the smaller ones inside. While there are similarities to the world famous Nazca Lines, in Peru, and to geoglyphs in England - such as the White Horse in Oxfordshire or the Dorset Giant - the experts believe there are no links.

...Yet archeologists still cannot fathom the identity of their sophisticated social group who worked in the massive operation of constructing structure visible from space.

'Facts say that on this territory in the Neolithic and Eneolithic Ages lived hunters and fishermen. We conducted archaeological works on the site of a settlement nearby, on the lake shore, on the assumption that the builders of the geoglyph might live there. People have lived here since the Neolithic era but there was no sign of large social structures, nor that they did anything other than hunting and fishing', Stanislav Grigoryev said.

'It puzzles me a lot, I keep thinking about the people that built the geoglyph, and their purpose'.

Link: Children from lost civilisation 'helped build' geoglyph some 6,000 years ago

A Beacon in the Land of Pharaohs: What the Great Pyramid Looked Like More than 4000 Years Ago

Though I've never had the pleasure to visit Egypt and contemplate the massive splendor of the Great Pyramid (yet), modern tourists will never truly grasp why sheer size and geometric perfection weren't the only things that made this monument the biggest wonder of the Ancient World.

That's because what remains of the pyramid attributed to the pharaoh Khufu is now almost completely devoid of its outer layer of highly polished limestone blocks, which would have made it look shiny white to the naked eye, and easy to spot for many miles around - a vision Egyptologist Dr. Jacquelyn Williamson has tried to recreate using the magic of CGI for a documentary produced by the Smithsonian channel.

I hope the documentary remembers to mention an oft-forgotten aspect in the mystery of the Great Pyramid: that of the missing capstone, which some believed was made of pure gold -- and which was supposedly going to be replaced as part of a grandiose ceremony at the start of the current millennium.

Seeing how the structure was covered in a bright material such as limestone, it makes sense the top portion of the pyramid, which would have been hit first by the ray of the rising sun, should have been made of an equally-reflective or more reflective substance, in order to turn it into a beacon presiding over the land of the pharaohs, bringing forth illumination from the realm of the gods.

[H/T Fast Company Design]

Revisiting the Age of the Sphinx Controversy with Robert Bauval and Robert Schoch

The Great Sphinx and Pyramids

Nostalgic for the halycon days of the 'alternative Egypt' craze of the 1990s? It seems that two decades later, it's due for a comeback. We already know that Graham Hancock is revisiting the areas covered in his hugely influential Fingerprints of the Gods - presumably including ancient Egypt - in a 2015 release titled Magicians of the Gods. And now two other big names of alternative Egyptology, Robert Bauval and Robert Schoch, have announced they are teaming up to write a book on the 'Age of the Sphinx' controversy. From Robert Bauval's Facebook page:

I am please to announce that Dr. Robert Schoch and I have decided to team up in order to write a book on the Sphinx. Since the early 1990s on the one hand Schoch's name has been associated with the 'Age of the Sphinx' geological debate and, on the other hand, I have been associated with a similar debate based on astronomy. Since then much new evidence has come to light after twenty years of new research and on-location expeditions which we will present in this new book, as well as tackle heads-on the various criticism and academic attacks that were thrown at us over the years. No punches will be spared in this forceful book that will once and for all hammer in the last nail to this intellectual coffin of Egyptology. Stay tuned for more news....

Link: Sphinx: The Quest for the Source of Civilisation


Recreating the Lost Music of our Ancient Ancestors

Deerbone Flute from Avebury

In the modern age we take for granted the almost magical ability to record audio - up until the 19th century, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to either play it yourself, or listen to someone else play it, live. How then can we hear the sounds of the past before this point? One way is through the transcription of music on to paper - this is how we know the music of the great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Sometimes it is through through memory, such as in the transmission of folk tunes from one generation to the next. But in more ancient examples, those sounds have largely been lost.

While we can't be sure of the melodies these ancient people played, archaeological excavations have uncovered some of the instruments that were used. And they show that music is something humans have enjoyed for a very long time: three flutes found at the Geißenklösterle cave in Germany - two of which were made from swan bones, the other from a hollowed mammoth tusk - have been dated to around 36,000 BC, while flutes made from vulture bone discovered in France have been dated to between 20,000 and 35,000 years ago. In fact, it seems the ancients realised fairly early on that bones make for a pretty damn good flute, and utilised skeletal remains from birds, animals, and even humans (most often femurs and ulnas).

And from these archaeological discoveries, we can at least get a sense of what ancient music might have sounded like. The position of the holes in a flute give us the musical scale they utilised, and the construction of the object provides us with an idea of the tone the instrument may have had. Last year we posted video of an ancient vulture bone flute being played. And recently Philip 'Greywolf' Shallcrass has recreated a deer-bone flute found near the Avebury megalithic complex and posted the resulting sounds to YouTube:

The original instrument, now lost, was discovered in July 1849 by one John Merewether, Dean of Hereford, when he dug into some burial mounds about a mile and a quarter from Avebury. The flute was found beside the crouched skeletal remains of a man and an undecorated urn containing the bones of a child. We know what it looks like as Merewether sketched and described his finds in a book published in 1851. I'm not sure why Greywolf's recreation has four holes rather than the three in Merewether's sketch, but imagining the sound of this flute floating across the Avebury circle certainly does give me chills.

(h/t @Fiona_Lang)