Saturday, March 13, 2010

A spot of archeology.

It's been a freaking good couple years for archeology. I mean, not only did we end a hundred year quest and find Akhenaten, but some other crazy-wild things have turned up. Thanks to modern testing methods, we're figuring out more about the past than ever before, and we're able to say a lot of things as facts, instead of the usual speculation in the field.

Case in point? The Ridgeway Hill Viking Burial Pit.

Last year, they were putting in a road to try and plan for traffic congestion when London hosts the Olympics (in, what, two years?) As is so common in England, they found a historic site. In this case, a pit of bones. At first they assumed they'd run across a mass grave or a messy graveyard or what have you. It was an old Roman quarry that someone had thrown a bunch of bodies into. But when they really looked, they realized everyone had been decapitated. The heads were stacked up, separate from the bodies. I imagine that was kind of attention-getting, even a thousand years after the fact. Rather dramatic when it was done, too.

So, of course, they sent in some really good archeologists and had them poke around.

All the bodies were male. Most were in their late teens and twenties, a few in their thirties. It is assumed they were thrown in the pit naked, 'cause there's been absolutely no evidence of clothing found. (Most folks in that area and at that time used pins - fibulae - to hold their clothes on, not buttons, or, ha, zippers.) Some of the bodies had defensive wounds on their hands and forearms.

With so little other information, they got clever. They sent some samples off for isotope and other kinds of testing.

Carbon dating put the pit at a time between 910 and 1030CE, when Vikings were raiding, settling, and otherwise over-running the native Anglo-Saxon population. Strontium isotopes in their bones place them in Scandinavia for their formative years. Oxygen isotopes in their tooth enamel also says they came from Scandinavia. Carbon and nitrogen in the dentine of their teeth suggests they ate a diet high in meat, which was typical of the Vikings at that time.

At this point, they figure that some Anglo-Saxons got the better of a Viking raiding party of some kind and executed them. Probably as a public spectacle. While it's kind of grisly, it is also freaking cool that they could figure out so much from what is just a pile of jumbled bones. Everybody with me now: YAY, SCIENCE!


The other major find in Britain lately is the Staffordshire Hoard. Biggest, coolest, awesomest thing in treasure hunting since Sutton Hoo (which it looks a lot like, to the point I wonder if the same craftspeople made them).

Found by hobbyists with metal detectors in 2009 (Yay, GEEKS!) 1500 pieces, I think all gold. Biggest hoard ever found in Britain that we know of. (People used to quietly dig them up and melt them down, back in the day, before archeology became a science.) They kept the exact location secret as they excavated, because the hoard had been scattered about and they didn't need a bunch of greedy wankers traipsing all over it.

Tentatively, it has been dated to the 7th or 8th century (within a century or two of the Viking execution described above). It was in the Kingdom of Mercia, an area we know almost nothing about. The only remotely detailed account of the era was written by the Venerable Bede, and he mostly ignored Mercia 'cause they were (probably) pagan and he was (definitely) Christian. So with luck this stuff will be really educational and useful.

So, it's been a busy year or so for the archeologists. Can't wait to see what they turn up next.



Shoveling Ferret said...

Ooooh, shiny (in both the Firefly sense and the reflecting light sense).

Nalamienea said...

Way Cool! Thank you so much for bringing us such interesting posts on such very very cool science-y stuff.

How is it one woman such as yourself has come to store such vast amounts of information on such a wide array of subjects?? :)

amy said...

Cool. Read this out loud to husband during breakfast.

Amy Lane said...

Ooooohhh... the Beowulf Geek in me just had a history-gasm... yay science!!!

Emily said...

Yeah, how do you manage to find all this fascinating stuff with a young person (the Goob) in your house? When my kids were that age, my brain was constantly short-circuiting because I couldn't finish a thought without interruption, let alone a whole sentence. I am stunned, I tell ya, stunned. And grateful.

Louiz said...

Yay science! And yay Geeks! It's such a shame they need to keep the location of the hoard secret while they're digging it up.

If you want anything in London photographed by the way, let me know. While I don't think I can blag my way onto a dig, I can get to the museums in London...

Catie said...

yea science!