Category Archives: Archaeology
The discovery of the lost city of ‘the Dazzling Aten’ will offer vital clues about domestic and urban life in Ancient Egypt
Built by Amenhotep III and then used by his grandson Tutankhamen, the ruins of the city were an accidental discovery. In September last year, Hawass and his team were searching for a mortuary temple of Tutankhamen.
Instead, hidden under the sands for almost three and a half millennia, they found the Dazzling Aten, believed to be the largest city discovered in Egypt and, importantly, dated to the height of Egyptian civilisation. So far, Hawass’ excavations have unearthed rooms filled with tools and objects of daily life such as pottery and jewellery, a large bakery, kitchens and a cemetery.
The city also includes workshops and industrial, administrative and residential areas, as well as, to date, three palaces.
Ancient Egypt has been called the “civilisation without cities”. What we know about it comes mostly from tombs and temples, whilst other great civilisations of the Bronze Age, such as Mesopotamia, are famous for their great cities.
The Dazzling Aten is extraordinary not only for its size and level of prosperity but also its excellent state of preservation, leading many to call it the “Pompeii of Ancient Egypt”.
The rule of Amenhotep III was one of the wealthiest periods in Egyptian history. This city will be of immeasurable importance to the scholarship of archaeologists and Egyptologists, who for centuries have struggled with understanding the specifics of urban, domestic life in the Pharaonic period.
Foundations of urban life
I teach a university subject on the foundations of urban life, and it always comes as a surprise to my students how little we know about urbanism in ancient Egypt.
The first great cities, and with them the first great civilisations, emerged along the fertile valleys of great rivers in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the Indus Valley (modern day India and Pakistan) and China at the beginning of the Bronze Age, at least 5,000 years ago.
Just like cities today, they provided public infrastructure and roads, and often access to sanitation, education, health care and welfare. Their residents specialised in particular professions, paid taxes and had to obey laws.
But the Nile did not support the urban lifestyle in the same way as the rivers of other great civilisations. It had a reliable flood pattern and thus the second longest river in the world could be easily tamed, allowing for simple methods of irrigation that did not require complex engineering and large groups of workers to maintain. This meant the population didn’t necessarily need to cluster in organised cities.
Excavations of Early Dynastic (c. 3150-2680 BCE) Egyptian cities such as Nagada and Hierakonpolis have provided us with a plethora of information regarding urban life in the early Bronze Age . But they are separated from the Dazzling Aten by some 1,600 years — as long as separates us from the Huns of Attila attacking ancient Rome.
One city closer in age to the Dazzling Aten we do know a little more about is the short-lived capital of Amenhotep’s III son, Akhenaten, known as the “Horizon of the Aten”, or Tell el-Amarna. Amarna was functional for only 14 years (1346-1332 BCE) before being abandoned forever. It was first described by a travelling Jesuit monk in 1714 and has been excavated on and off for the last 100 years.
Very few other Egyptian cities from the Early Dynastic Period (3150 BCE) to the Hellenistic period (following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE), have been excavated. This means that domestic urban life and urban planning have long been contentious research areas in the study of Pharaonic Egypt.
The scientific community is impatiently waiting for more information to draw comparisons between Akhenaten’s city and the newly discovered capital founded by his father.
The magnificent pharaoh
Amenhotep III, also known as Amenhotep the Magnificent, ruled between 1386 and 1349 BCE and was one of the most prosperous rulers in the Egyptian history.
During his reign as the ninth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Egypt achieved the height of its international power, climbing to an unprecedented level of economic prosperity and artistic splendour. His vision of greatness was immortalised in his great capital, which is believed to have been later used by at least Tutankhamen and Ay.
In 2008, for the first time in history, the majority of world’s inhabitants lived in the cities. Yet, with globalisation, the differences between the “liveability” of modern cities are striking.
As a society we need to understand where cities come from, how have they formed and how they shaped the development of past urban communities to learn lessons for the future. We look forward to research and findings being published from the ancient city of Amenhotep III to enlighten us about the daily lives of ancient Egyptians at their height.
Joakim Goldhahn, University of Western Australia and Paul S.C.Taçon, Griffith UniversityAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
Aboriginal rock art unfolds stories about the present-past and emerging worlds, often described by an outsider as the Dreamtime. Some rock art, it is believed, was put in place by spiritual and mythological beings. Many of these Ancestral Beings travelled vast distances, and their journeys link places, clans and different rock art paintings.
Other images were created to educate children about cultural protocols, or just made to tell an amusing story. The artists who created the works are also important. Some artists were prolific and appreciated. A person who made a hand stencil could often be identified by the hand’s shape.
Our new research into a 1972 painting made by Billy Miargu in today’s Kakadu National Park shows how rock art can act as an intergenerational media — even when no longer visible to the eye.
In December 1972, Robert Edwards and George Chaloupka, two acclaimed rock art researchers, came across Miargu camping at Koongarra in the heart of Kakadu. They took a photograph of his family. In the background, there was a newly made painting of a kangaroo. The researchers did not think much about this image, describing it as a “poor naturalistic representation.”
When Paul S.C. Taçon revisited the painting only 13 years later, it was gone (probably due to exposure to wind and rain). In 2018, we used state-of-the-art digital documentation methods to try to detect remnants of the kangaroo, but all in vain. We can no longer see the white kangaroo, as shown in the photograph below.
In June 2019, we returned to Koongarra with three of Miargu’s daughters, two of his granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.
We wanted to learn about the artist and what meaning this place holds today for his family.
We learned that Miargu was born in central Arnhem Land. He moved west to Kakadu around the time of the second world war to work at cattle stations — shooting buffalo, cutting timber — and emerging tourist venues. His clan was Barrbinj and his wife, Daphnie Baljur, was Barrappa. Together, they had six children: five daughters and a son.
Miargu and his wife were camping at Koongarra in 1972 while participating in a fact-finding survey on behalf of the Commonwealth government and the Australian Mining Industry Council for a planned uranium mine. They collected mammals and reptiles for this study.
Our conversations revealed that the place where Miargu painted the kangaroo had a special meaning for him. It is situated in his mother’s clan Country, and he had a ceremonial obligation to this place.
The original kangaroo painting referenced a local ceremony. Depicting this Ancestral Being in his mother’s Country shows that Miargu had undergone this ceremony and was keen to care for this Country. Today, his son and daughters have inherited some of these obligations.
Even though Miargu’s painting of the kangaroo can no longer be detected, this place holds a special meaning to his descendants. In fact, for the family, they say “our dad’s painting is hiding, in secret place”. They address the painting as if it is still there, visible or not.
Miargu passed away in 1990. This is the only place the family knows where he created rock art. His daughter Linda Biyalwanga said, “we don’t know any other paintings. Only one painting, that’s why we bring our children to show them this painting.”
And she explained:
My daddy, story, memory, like memories, memory for us, and [he] make [the rock art] for the grandchildren, yeah. He said when I passed away, then my daughters will come around and maybe my granddaughter, and grandsons, great-great-grandchildren come and have look at […] rock art […] When they have kids, they can show them the painting.
Defying Western notions of time
The tangible place, the intangible rock painting, and the family’s recollection of the happy times they spent together with their parents at this special place seem to have merged into a present-past and future which embrace Western concepts of space, but defy similar notions of time.
In an inexplicable but noteworthy way, Miargu’s painting seems more present today because it is absent.
To visit Koongarra and the rock art figure he created is vital for his family. It evokes cherished memories about their parents and feelings, but also sorrow and the loss of “the Old People who finished up”.
Joanne Sullivan, another of Miargu’s daughters, expressed this when she said: “I wish my dad sit here.”
When asked if there are other places where they can connect to their parents in this way, Linda Biyalwanga answered: “It’s the only place. It’s the only place we think about, like, his spirit, mum’s spirit.”
When we left the place, Miargu’s daughters called out to their parents’ spirits and asked them to remember them and take care of them. Even though the rock painting “is hiding”, it is still crucial — it lives on even when gone…
This research was undertaken in collaboration with the family members of Billy Miargu and Daphnie Baljur.
Joakim Goldhahn, Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art, Centre of Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia and Paul S.C.Taçon, Chair in Rock Art Research and Director of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Griffith University
National Geographic magazines and Indiana Jones movies might have you picturing archaeologists excavating near Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and Machu Picchu. And some of us do work at these famous places.
But archaeologists like us want to learn about how people from the past lived all over the planet. We rely on left-behind artifacts to help fill out that picture. We need to excavate in places where there’s evidence of human activity – those clues from the past aren’t always as obvious as a giant pyramid, though.
Finding that evidence can be as simple as strolling past clearly distinguishable ruins – ah, there are some broken pots or carved stones right over there. It can be as complex as using lasers, satellite imagery and other new geophysical techniques to reveal long-lost structures. The right skills and tools are helping researchers locate traces from the past that would have been overlooked even a few decades ago.
Open eyes, open ears, open minds
The simplest and oldest identification method is a pedestrian survey: looking for evidence of human activity, either on unstructured strolls or when walking in a grid. Unless the evidence is crystal clear – like those broken pots – such surveys usually need a trained eye to read the clues.
In Belize, where one of us (Gabe) works, remains of houses and even large temple pyramids that were abandoned over 1,000 years ago are usually covered in trees and plants; exposed sections look like stone piles.
I brought my father to a site where workers had removed the thick foliage so archaeologists could thoroughly map the site. Another archaeologist and I excitedly discussed the visible architectural features – patios, terraces, the stubs of walls. Finally, my dad threw his hands up in the air and said “All I see are rocks!”
But our trained eyes recognized that the piles of stones or earthen mounds we saw were suspiciously aligned. Stare at archaeological sites long enough and you’ll notice them too.
Understanding what you see also can require familiarity with local geology and flora. And who is more familiar than the people who live in a region? It pays for archaeologists to make friends with the locals and to be very respectful of their knowledge. In my work in Belize, most of the settlement and ritual cave sites where my students and I work were initially identified by local hunters who know the forest and its landmarks intimately.
One time, I was walking through the jungle in Belize when a local friend of mine stopped suddenly in what appeared to me as a random cluster of trees. He said “This must have been someone’s farm.” He’d seen specific domestic plants that are commonly found in gardens in his village. Not being as familiar with local flora, I never would have noticed this subtle difference. So, even living plants can be considered part of human-modified archaeological sites.
High-tech remote sensing
In recent years, archaeologists have begun to use new methods to find archaeological sites that had previously been overlooked. These techniques, broadly referred to as remote sensing, allow us to peer through dense forests without clearing them, digitally removing jungle growth and centuries of soil to reveal long-lost structures hidden beneath. High-resolution scans using lasers or 3D photographs can even detect subtle undulations of ground surfaces that are not visible to the human eye.
For instance, LiDAR – light detection and ranging – fires pulsed lasers to determine distance based on what reflects back and how quickly. When used from a plane, millions of points are collected, resulting in a detailed topographic map of the landscape. Specialists working with these data can remove trees and other objects to digitally expose ground surfaces.
A recent example at the ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala, revealed around 61,000 structures in the jungles surrounding the city’s center. The density of settlement came as a shock because, despite extensive pedestrian survey in the past, even experienced archaeologists failed to recognize most of these ephemeral remains.
Increasingly, archaeologists find sites by searching satellite imagery, including Google Earth. For instance, during a recent drought in England, the remains of ancient features began to appear across the landscape and were visible from above.
Remote sensing can also focus on smaller areas. Geophysical techniques are commonly used before excavating to scan the ground where researchers know archaeological remains are buried. These nondestructive methods help pick out buried anomalies from surrounding soils by distinguishing their density, magnetic properties or conduction of electrical currents.
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The shape and alignment of these features can often provide clues about what they are. For instance, the dense walls of a building will show up as distinct from the surrounding soil.
What will archaeologists of the future find?
As you look around for evidence of human activity in the past, remember you’re actively involved in making the archaeological sites of the future. Since archaeology is the study of anything material left behind by human beings, that definition also fits what remains after Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival, for example, or as migrants journey across the U.S.-Mexico border.
In fact, there are archaeological sites nearly everywhere you look. One of us (Stacey) once studied trash left behind during tailgating parties. My students and I wanted to understand if alumni and students were drinking different types of alcohol. Using archaeological methodologies, we discovered that alumni partied with expensive alcohol, such as wine and microbrews, while students drank what they could afford: cheap, corporate beers, with Coors Light and Bud Light being the most common beers of choice.
We made this archaeological “discovery” by carefully mapping and identifying trash prior to and during the game. While most of it was picked up, smaller pieces undoubtedly found their way into the soil, perhaps to be discovered by a future Campus Archaeology Program.
We archaeologists used to dig primarily at sites that were easy to find. Technology is changing that. In fact, applications like Google Earth are making possible a new era of citizen science, with researchers sometimes enlisting the help of members of the public to comb through data. Through efforts by archaeologists to engage and educate the public, including incorporating volunteers into lab and field work, giving public lectures and workshops, and creating accessible web resources, we hope to show that the story of our past is often hidden in plain sight.
Music has been part and parcel of humanity for a long time. Not every sound is musical, but sound has meaning and sometimes the meaning of sound is specific to its context.
But when it comes to archaeology there is scant evidence of music or sound producing artefacts from southern Africa. This is because of poor preservation of the mostly organic materials that were used to manufacture musical instruments. Rock art offers depictions of musical instruments as well as scenes of dancing that can be linked with music performance, but here only music-related artefacts will be discussed.
I conducted original research as well as a survey of the literature available on these artefacts. Ethnographic sources were also consulted in order to attempt to provide a broader contextual background against which knowledge of the archaeological implements could be expanded. The Percival Kirby online musical instrument repository has also been used. Music archaeology is multidisciplinary in nature.
The result is one of the first reports on southern African sound- and music-related artefacts.
Research in music archaeology in southern Africa has just begun. Available evidence dates back from around 10,000 years ago, from the Later Stone Age up to the Iron Age. The artefacts fall into two groups, namely aerophones, where sound is produced by vibrating air, and idiophones, where sound is produced by solid material vibrating. These artefacts include spinning disks, bullroarers, bone tubes that could have been used as flutes or whistles, clay whistles, keys from thumb pianos (also called lamellophones or mbiras), musical bells and an ivory trumpet. The list is not exhaustive and more research needs to be conducted.
These music-related or sound-producing artefacts are made from various materials, including bone, ivory, metal and clay. The artefacts show how integral sound and music production was in the socio-cultural practices of people in the past, most likely for entertainment and rituals. Sound production and music making is a sign of being fully human.
Recent experimental work established that some Later Stone Age bone implements from the Klasies River Mouth and Matjes River sites are a spinning disk and a bullroarer respectively. Their replicas produced powerful whirring sounds and they can be referred to as sound-producing implements even though the purpose of the sound or their use cannot be clearly ascertained. They could have been used as signalling implements, toys, in ritual settings or in musical contexts, among others. Nowadays these implements are seldom found in the region.
Bone tubes, mainly in bird bone, have been recovered from Later Stone Age contexts from the southern and western Cape of South Africa and some were also recovered from historical contexts. Previously, these bone tubes were interpreted as sucking tubes and beads. But morphological analysis – or studying their form – has indicated that considering the various lengths and widths as well as their smoothened ends, they could have been used as flutes or whistles. There is no a clear-cut distinction between flutes and whistles.
If they were used as flutes they were single tone flutes since none has finger holes that can enable the production of more tones. Some of the archaeological bone tubes bear chevron and cross hatching patterns, but it is not clear if the decorations have a meaning or were just made for aesthetic purposes. The San and Khoe people in South Africa used reed flutes in the past. Flutes are still used today by various cultural groups in South Africa, for example the Venda people in South Africa use flutes when performing the tshikona dance.
Clay whistles have been recovered from the sites of K2 and Mapungubwe from Early Iron Age contexts. Similar clay whistles are very rare and are not mentioned ethnographically, but it has been said that the Basotho herders in Lesotho used similar whistles. Whistles can also be used during a musical procession or as signalling implements in sending a message.
An ivory trumpet was recovered from Sofala site in Mozambique. It has a blow hole and some decorations on its body.
Ivory trumpets are not common in southern Africa, but are known in west Africa. For example, in Ghana among the Asante people they had a spiritual significance and were associated with the royal court. Ivory trumpets are also said to have been used to announce the arrival of kings. The trumpets that are found in southern Africa are not in ivory.
Thumb piano, lamellophone or mbira keys have been recovered from the Later Iron Age contexts in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. This idiophone became popular with the introduction of iron technology and it is still used today. Some popular musicians play the lamellophone, for example Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe. Mbira is closely associated with spirituality, especially among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The lamellophone is now a common musical instrument globally.
Musical bells were found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia from Later Iron Age contexts. Both double and single bells existed and, for example, at Great Zimbabwe both were recovered. Ethnographically, musical bells are known to have originated in West and Central Africa and they were most likely introduced to southern Africa through trade. These idiophones are said to have been played to announce the arrival of kings. Musical bells are still used today.
Musical instruments are seldom found in the archaeological record and are not easily identifiable, so there is a lot of debate among researchers when it comes to identifying these instruments from the archaeological record. Some instruments may not have been musical instruments per se but rather sound-producing implements that were used to convey certain messages or used for ritual purposes.
Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower in ancient northern Europe
Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.
The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.
The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.
By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.
Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.
Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.
Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.
Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.
Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.
In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.
The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.
But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.
This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.
Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.
Cultural and social dominance
Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.
By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.
One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.
Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.
The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.
Intersections of language and culture
We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.
This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.
When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.
In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed
Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, University of York; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, James Cook University
For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.
Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.
But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.
The great flood
When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.
Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.
Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.
The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.
Landscapes under water
For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.
We studied navigation charts, geological maps and archaeological sites located on the land to narrow down prospective areas before surveying the seabed using laser scanners mounted on small planes and high-resolution sonar towed behind boats.
In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.
We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.
The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.
At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.
Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.
Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.
In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.
Underwater archaeology matters
The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.
Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.
The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.
Protecting a priceless submerged heritage
Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.
Protection of underwater cultural sites more than 100 years old is enshrined by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), adopted as law by more than 60 countries but not ratified by Australia.
In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.
This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.
Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.
There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.
With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.
We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.
Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of York; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Climate Geoscience, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University
The chances of finding another major archaeological monument near Stonehenge today are probably very small given the generations of work that has gone into studying the site. Stumbling across such a monument that measured more than 2km across must be highly unlikely. And yet that is exactly what our team from the Anglo-Austrian “Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes” research project has done.
We discovered a circle of pits, each ten metres or more in diameter and at least five metres deep, around Stonehenge’s largest prehistoric neighbour, the so-called super henge at Durrington Walls. More amazingly, the initial evidence for this discovery was hidden away in terabytes of remote sensing data and reams of unpublished literature generated by archaeologists over the years.
Durrington is one of Britain’s largest neolithic monuments. Comprising banks and ditches measuring 500 metres across, the henge was constructed over 4,500 years ago by early farmers, around the time that Stonehenge achieved it’s final, distinctive form. The site itself overlies what may have been one of north west Europe’s largest neolithic villages. Researchers suggest that the communities that built Stonehenge lived here.
Over the last decade, there has been a quiet revolution in the landscape around Stonehenge as archaeologists have gained access to enhanced remote sensing technologies. Around 18 sq km of landscape around Stonehenge has now been surveyed through geophysics. Now archaeologists are joining the dots within these enormous data set, and making associations they might not have done otherwise.
The first geophysical anomalies related to our new discovery were recorded (but not published) some years ago when a small number of peculiar circular splodges in the magnetometry data south of Durrington. These were initially interpreted as shallower features, possibly dew ponds, unlinked to the henge. But our research group realised that similar features had been recorded far to the north of the henge by archaeological contractors, interpreted as natural sink holes caused by solution of the chalk bedrock.
Our mapping work suggested all these features were actually linked and part of a single, massive circuit surrounding the henge monument at Durrington. Detailed study, including drilling for underground samples, revealed the anomalies as massive pits, with near vertical sides, containing worked flint and bone. Radiocarbon dating suggested the features were from the same time as the henge.
Shafts and pits are known in prehistoric British archaeology, but the sheer number of massive pits and the scale of the Durrington circuit is unparalleled in the UK. The internal area of the ring is likely to be at least around three sq km. This arrangement of pits certainly gives the impression they bound an important space, and here there may be a comparison to be made with Stonehenge itself.
Stonehenge actually has a territory sometimes called the “Stonehenge Envelope”. This is marked by lines of later burial mounds clustering around the monument, covering an area similar to that of Durrington Walls. The space is marked so clearly that archaeologists have suggested only a special few people may have been allowed to enter the area.
This association of Stonehenge with death and burial has also led to interpretations that it was reserved for ancestors. Durrington, in contrast, is believed to be associated with the living. But our discovery of the pits suggest that Durrington did have a similar special outer area, as large as that associated with Stonehenge.
The pit circle also provide insights into the mindset of the people who built these massive structures. The pits appear to be laid out to include a much earlier monument: the Larkhill causewayed enclosure.
Built more than 1,000 years before the Durrington Walls henge, such ditched enclosures were the first large communal constructions in Britain and they were clearly important to early farming communities. The decision to appropriate this earlier monument into the circuit of the henge must have been a deliberate, symbolic statement.
In fact, the pits appear to have been laid out in a notional circle so that they were all the same walking distance from the henge as the causewayed enclosure. Given the scale involved and the shape of the landscape, which includes several valleys, this would have been difficult to achieve without the existence of a tally or counting system. This is the first evidence that such a system may have been used by neolithic people to lay out what must be considered a sacred geometry, at the scale suggested by the Durrington pits.
The unexpected discovery of a unique set of massive pits within the Stonehenge landscape may also have implications in terms of the site’s management. There are similar individual features scattered throughout the landscape that are unexplored but may be of equal significance. Yet a proposed road (the A303) development includes a road tunnel that will pass close to the iconic site of Stonehenge itself and impact a large corridor of land directly associated with the site.
The issue of value is complex when we’re discussing a period of history in which the digging of pits clearly had a multitude of social values. We would do well to consider the implication of such discoveries before a tragic loss ensues. Future generations are unlikely to forgive us if we damage this unique landscape.