News Update- Planning eruptions and elephants

First up this week is a rather topical piece of news given the latest reports on climate change which were released last week. Melting snow in Norway has revealed preserved arrows and a bow from thousands of years a go. The arrows were made from different woods and all tipped with slate, whilst the bow was made from elm. The bow has been dated to 1,800 BC and the oldest of the arrows to 3,400 BC. Finding such artefacts is extremely rare, but the permanent snow cover in the Norwegian mountains where these were found has preserved them. The fact that snow and ice in these areas are now melting means that we have the chance to find these artefacts, but it also means that they are no longer protected from decay. Martin Callanan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and E. James Dixon from the University of New Mexico have both noted that the scale of melting climate change is causing is worrying. Dixon suggests that for every artefact found there may be hundreds or thousands which are not found and left to decay. You can check out the pictures of the bow and arrows here:

This next story is interesting because it fills in a missing piece of the historic narrative of Europe, and identifies a long missing cause. It is well-known that during the middle ages there was a mini ice age which brought a decrease in temperatures and heavy rain, and caused a run of poor harvests. It was even known that in winter the Thames froze over. Analysis of ice cores has shown that around 750 years ago there was a large eruption somewhere in the world, which caused a major increase in the levels of sulfur in the atmosphere. This sulfur reflected the suns rays, reducing the temperature. Now Volcanologist Franck Lavigne of the University of Paris and colleagues think that they may have found the source of this event. The deposition of materials at both poles suggests an equatorial eruption as the most likely location. The volcano Samalas on Lombok, Indonesia is recorded as having erupted before the end of the 13th century, and dating of carbonised trees in the island’s volcanic deposits show that between 1257 and 1300 AD, an eruption took place which, analysis of the deposits has shown was one of the largest known in the last 10,000 years. The eruption of Samalas is also known to have buried nearby villages and the island’s capital Pamatan and the researchers suggest that this may be a “Pompeii of the Far East”…… *sigh*…

Another interesting story from the world beyond archaeology is that an inter disciplinary team from The universities of Connecticut and Exeter and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis have produced a mathematical model to demonstrate how complex societies evolve and spread. This model has been simulated within the Afro-Eurasian landmass from 1500 BC to 1500 AD and has been compared to historical records to test its accuracy. The model predicted 2/3 of the variation in determining the rise of large-scale societies. The fact that they have managed to get a model which is this accurate is quite impressive, though by watching their simulation video you can see just how much difference there is between model and reality. In particular it seems that the model suggests more frequent and disparate occurrences of large scale societies, some of which then die out. See:

Because this is just a mathematical model, rather than an analysis of data however it is by necessity based on a whole host of generalising assumptions and can never really reflect accurately what happened. I’m always skeptical of models such as this, some of which that claim to model what actually happened based simply on their mathematical parameters, and whilst this is aimed at testing theories on state formation, to ignore the individual social and political conditions of an area makes it seem as though this is not important when in fact small changes this could potentially have a large-scale impact. I therefore doubt that the theory behind this model will ever be developed enough to closely match the course of history.

Next up we have a rather unsurprising piece of news that early humans were able to work together to hunt. A combined effort from the University of Southampton and Oxford Archaeology uncovered an extinct straight tusked elephant whilst preparing for HS1 in 2003. This elephant was over twice the size of an African elephant and is one of only a handful in Britain. This find dates to around 420,000 years ago and was surrounded by 80 flint tools, suggesting, according to Dr Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton, that it had been butchered. However the association of some tools does not prove that it was butchered and there is no mention of butchery marks on the skeleton which would in fact confirm this. Even if it was evidence of butchery there is no direct evidence of how it was killed, as Dr Wenban-Smith admits, and thus it cannot be used as proof of early humans working together. All there is to suggest this is the circumstantial evidence that most of the prehistoric elephants found in Europe for which butchery has been suggested were large males. Really though it is not surprising that early hominins might have worked together, as modern primates with considerably less evidence of developed traits, such as tool use, are known to work together.

The final news item does not surprise me in the slightest, especially given the announcements made recently about scrapping English Heritage in its current form (which by the way I think is probably a very bad idea and will result in significantly less funding, not more as they are claiming). Rescue: The British Archaeological Trust has warned that the provision of services aimed at protecting the historic environment are close to becoming inadequate. Due to cuts to local council budgets there has been what they term a “significant decline” in expert advise on archaeology and conservation. As part of the planning process archaeologists are consulted to mitigate damage a proposal might cause. These archaeologists usually form part of the councils core staff, but since 2006 councils have lost over a third of their archaeological and building conservation experts. Rescue said that there is no sign of this decline stopping and that the situation will only become worse with the budget cuts for local authorities planned for this year. Many local bodies have been left without any archaeological officer or Historic Environment Record, leaving the local heritage at significant risk. Even in areas where there are archaeologists it can be hard to prevent damage to archaeology, one site local to me having just recently been stripped and ground works begun in order to build houses, before planning permission had even been given. This site had been awaiting an archaeological investigation, but in these afflicted areas archaeology may go unnoticed and destroyed without anyone even considering it. Rescue are calling for the government to take equal responsibility for Britain’s heritage, we can only hope that they listen. To find out more about Rescue visit:

Of course what I would really like is for them to inject lots more money into the heritage sector, then I might get a pay rise. Oooh look, a pig with a jet pack! I’ll see you next week.



2 responses to “News Update- Planning eruptions and elephants

  1. Small question from a non-archaeologist… how can two items found together, and which are clearly linked (bow and arrow), be dated differently by 1600 years? I would probably not go hunting with 1600 year old arrows…

    • First it is probably best if I describe what you would find if you were dealing with a buried deposit. If you were to dig a hole somewhere, generally the deeper you go the older the things you will find. So something 5cm deep may be from last year, something 20cm deep is going to be much older. Now it is a bit more complicated than this as you have to consider past events which have resulted in holes in the ground. If you were to dig down 30cm and deposit a coke can and then fill the hole back in, the coke can would be deeper than the thing at 20cm but obviously not as old for example. The study of these relationships is called stratigraphy.

      Now in this case the arrows would have been deposited first for whatever reason. Perhaps they were dropped and then covered up with snow and ice and thus lost. 1600 years later the bow would have been dropped in a similar location and then, like the arrows, covered in snow and ice. So going back to our previous example the arrows would have been deeper than the bow and so older, but when the ice melts this depth based relationship was wiped away leaving items of very different date close to each other on the ground surface.

      I hope that makes it clear for you!

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