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he Dover Boat is one of Britain’s great under-appreciated ancient artefacts.

Older than the Roman Empire. Older than Moses. It would have been in the water at the same time Stonehenge was in use. That’s about 1500 BC – 3,500 years ago.

The Dover Boat after it was discovered in 1992 Photo: Dover Museum

The Dover Boat after it was discovered in 1992 Photo: Dover Museum

There would have been countless others like it of course but they have not survived. Built from planks of oak, stiched together with pieces of yew. Certainly not meant to last thousands of years, which is why the vast majority have disappeared.

So to have found one – or at least seventy per cent of one – and to have preserved and displayed it is nothing short of miraculous. There are boats or fragments of boats which may well be older; the Abydos fleet of Egypt for example or the pine canoes of China’s Zhejiang province. And wood found off the Hampshire coast at Hayling Island in the late 1990s has been carbon dated to 7,000 years ago.

What makes Dover’s boat special though is that so much of it can still be seen and appreciated thanks to a huge rescue and conservation effort.

When it was first discovered during roadworks in Dover town centre it stunned archaeologists. But every hour the timbers were exposed it was effectively rotting away. And so teams of historians and archaeologists swung into action by the roadside. The boat was cut into sections, measured, recorded and cleaned. The bits were taken to a shed in Dover Harbour where they were kept wet in large and hastily-constructed water tanks. Later the ancient wood was strengthened using liquid wax, freeze-dried at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth and finally put back together using an adjustable crane.

The preserved Bronze Age Boat in Dover Museum Credit: Dover Museum

The preserved Bronze Age Boat in Dover Museum Credit: Dover Museum

The Dover Boat is one of Britain’s great under-appreciated ancient artefacts.

Older than the Roman Empire. Older than Moses. It would have been in the water at the same time Stonehenge was in use. That’s about 1500 BC – 3,500 years ago.

There would have been countless others like it of course but they have not survived. Built from planks of oak, stiched together with pieces of yew. Certainly not meant to last thousands of years, which is why the vast majority have disappeared.

So to have found one – or at least seventy per cent of one – and to have preserved and displayed it is nothing short of miraculous. There are boats or fragments of boats which may well be older; the Abydos fleet of Egypt for example or the pine canoes of China’s Zhejiang province. And wood found off the Hampshire coast at Hayling Island in the late 1990s has been carbon dated to 7,000 years ago.

What makes Dover’s boat special though is that so much of it can still be seen and appreciated thanks to a huge rescue and conservation effort.

When it was first discovered during roadworks in Dover town centre it stunned archaeologists. But every hour the timbers were exposed it was effectively rotting away. And so teams of historians and archaeologists swung into action by the roadside. The boat was cut into sections, measured, recorded and cleaned. The bits were taken to a shed in Dover Harbour where they were kept wet in large and hastily-constructed water tanks. Later the ancient wood was strengthened using liquid wax, freeze-dried at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth and finally put back together using an adjustable crane.

Then came another battle – to keep the Dover Boat where it belonged. A world-famous museum was said to have bid for it but had the idea of keeping it in pieces. In the end there was a massive fund-raising initiative and a great gallery was built in Dover Museum with a sealed glass chamber that now keeps the precious object safe in perpetuity.

And all the time historians have been looking at it, examining it, working out how it was built.

Seeing how it would have been hewn from the timbers of mighty trees that would have grown all the way down to the shoreline back then.

Seeing how it would not have had a sail, perhaps not even a rudder. Difficult to tell because the back of the boat is missing.

Seeing how it would have been rowed by about a dozen men using huge oars.

Maybe they wave-tested it off the Kent coast. Maybe it pootled upriver. Debate has raged over whether the Dover Boat was robust enough to have taken to the seas and therefore establish a claim to be one of the world’s oldest surviving seagoing vessels.

It or something like it would surely have rowed along the coast of Southern Britain, hugging the coastline in case it shipped too much water. How can we say that? What evidence do we have to back this up?

Well there are artefacts found in Dover from this time period from as far away as Dorset. Logical to think of them having been brought by sea rather than carried overland in what would have been a cumbersome and time-consuming journey.

And so above and beyond all the theories about why and how our boat was built emerges a tantalising possibility.

That it was put together by people who did not just have skills passed down over a few generations, but boat-building knowledge accrued in their communities over hundreds if not thousands of years.

That something very similar to our rickety-looking, oak-planked, yew-stitched craft was crossing the English Channel and also the oceans way back in Stone Age times.

Imagine what light that would cast on our knowledge of the spread and dispersment of peoples, societies, cultures, even entire civilisations, in that yawning chasm of time before recorded history.

The Dover Boat is that significant. A rare treasure.

Article from ITV News: http://www.itv.com/news/meridian/2012-05-12/dover-boat-personal-view/

The Best Guided Tours in British History
HisTOURies UK 

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The Chalke Valley History Festival is planning to launch a series of History Tours in 2012, some in conjunction with the Natural High travel company.

We want to capitalise on our relationship with this country’s most compelling and authoritative historians by offering some as guides for historic tours and holidays.

Both dates and itineraries are yet to be confirmed, as are costs.  However, we are very interested to know whether there is demand for the idea from those who have enjoyed our Festival.

These Chalke Valley History Tours will vary between a few days and a week’s duration, and will be of general rather than specialist interest.

Below are some of the initial tours we are hoping to organise in our first programme of History Tours.  If you would like to learn more about them, please do let us know on info@cvhf.org.uk

THE INDIAN MUTINY
led by Professor Saul David
It began as a mutiny of East India Company sepoys in Meerut in May 1857 and was only contained after the fall of Gwalior a year later.  It rocked the British Empire to its foundations and led to the downfall of the Company.  This tour, by the world’s leading authority on the subject, will tell the story of the Indian Mutiny by visiting its main sites amidst the drama of central India.

Saul David is Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and a specialist in the wars of the Victorian period.  He is particularly well placed to lead this tour; not only is he well-known and popular television historian, the Indian Mutiny was the subject matter of his PhD, and his subsequent book is considered the definitive history of this dark episode from the Raj.

ANCIENT ROME
led by Tom Holland
Was it the greatest empire the world has ever seen?  Certainly, it lasted almost a thousand years and incorporated, at its zenith, most of the known world.  This tour will focus on the city of Rome and those towns to the south, Pompeii and Herculaneum, recapturing the spirit and glory of Ancient Rome.

Tom Holland is an award-winning and highly acclaimed historian of antiquity.  Rubicon, his book on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, was an international best-seller and was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize.  He is currently working on a new book about the first Emperors.  A brilliant raconteur, Tom Holland is working exclusively for Chalke Valley History Holidays.

THE ZULU WARS
led by Dr Peter Caddick-Adams
The Battle of Isandlwana and the defence of Rorke’s Drift are two of the most dramatic events in the British Imperial story.  For the victors of each, both were triumphs over incredible odds; at Isandlwana, it was the Zulus who won the day, while at Rorke’s Drift, it was the British, in one of the most astonishing last stands in British history.  At both, many men on both sides showed incredible courage.  This tour to some of the most unspoiled battlefields in the world, will tell the story and characters of a war that resonates still to this day, and against the captivating landscape of South Africa.

Peter Caddick-Adams is the doyen of battlefield guides.  Learning his craft from the legendary Richard Holmes, he also chose Battlefield Tourism as the subject matter for his PhD.  Since then, he has worked with British and American armed forces on numerous staff rides, as well as guided politicians and leading public figures around some of the best-known battlefields in Europe and further afield.  Quite simply, Peter Caddick-Adams is one of the very best Battlefield Guides we have.

D-DAY & THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY 1944
led by James Holland
The Battle for Normandy was one of the fiercest battles ever fought, with higher daily casualty rates than were suffered at the Somme, Passchendaele or Verdun.  From the landings themselves to the bitter fighting as the Allies inched inland, this is a tour that will include little-known sites and bunkers as well as some of the more iconic beaches and D-Day locations.  Told with a mass of anecdotes and new, searing, analysis, this will be a comprehensive guide to the D-Day battlefields, and set to the backdrop of the glorious Normandy countryside, with its wonderful food, wine and calvados.

James Holland is one of the country’s leading authorities on the Second World War, and has written and broadcast on the Battle of Britain and Dams Raid amongst other subjects. With an encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of the war, he has also conducted Staff Rides for the military and a number of historic tours around many of the Second World War battlefields.

The excellent Chalke Valley History Festival 26th June – 1st July 2012 – http://www.cvhf.org.uk/

HisTOURies UK
Mystical Landscape, Magical Tours

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An archaeological excavation currently being undertaken by Context One, on behalf of Ashford Homes, on the corner of Bathwick Street and Henrietta Road, Bathwick, have uncovered the remains of several Roman structures with associated features, as well as a Roman road surface.

Based on some of the finds recovered so far, it appears to be an early Roman site. A preliminary look at the structures suggests we’ve discovered at least one dwelling, divided into both domestic and industrial areas, the latter comprise various external surfaces and boundary walls.

We have also revealed a Roman road crossing the site. This is constructed from a number of layers that have built up over some time, suggesting the road was in continued use. Several exterior (possible yard) surfaces have also been uncovered adjacent to the road.

A large number of smaller features (including various pits) have been revealed during the initial cleaning of the site. Whilst some of these almost certainly post-date the structures and road surface, others may prove to be contemporary.

We are in the initial stages of our investigation and are likely to be on site for at least the next month. Updates on our progress will be forwarded to the local press but for more immediate information we will be posting here on their website. http://www.contextone.co.uk

HisTOURies UK

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While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

 

The Legend of St. Valentine

The history of Valentine’s Day–and the story of its patron saint–is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and–most importantly–romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Link Source: http://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day

Happy Valentines Day

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A medieval barn described by the poet John Betjeman as the ‘cathedral of Middlesex’ has been rescued from decay and neglect for the nation, English Heritage said today.

Grade I-listed Harmondsworth Barn in west London joins the likes of Stonehenge, Osborne House and parts of Hadrian’s Wall in the national collection of historic sites and monuments under the guardianship of English Heritage.

Historic: The exquisite oak structure was created by skilled carpenters, whose signature marks can still be seen, in the 15th Century

Historic: The exquisite oak structure was created by skilled carpenters, whose signature marks can still be seen, in the 15th Century

Built by Winchester College in 1426, the barn would have been used to store grain from the surrounding manor, owned by the Bishop of Winchester, with profits from the produce used to pay for the school

The structure resembles the nave of a large church, standing at nearly 60 metres (200ft) long, 12 metres (40ft) wide, and 11 metres (36ft) high, with 13 huge oak trusses resting on stone blocks holding up the roof.

While it has had some repairs over the years, most recently by English Heritage to make it weather-proof and keep out pigeons, the structure is largely as it was built, with the timber and stones still bearing original carpenter and mason marks.

The oak-framed barn, which the heritage agency said ranks alongside the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace for its historic value, was used up until the 1970s but fell into disrepair in the ownership of an offshore company which had bought it in 2006

It is thought the purchase by a Gibraltar-based company for £1 was a speculative one, as the barn stands just metres from where Heathrow’s third runway – had it gone ahead – would have been built.

In 2009, English Heritage became concerned about the barn’s deteriorating condition and issued an urgent works notice for emergency repairs to keep it water and wind-tight.

The barn became known as “Cathedral of Middlesex”

A dispute over payment for the emergency works led to English Heritage buying the barn, which lies between the M25 and M4 motorways, for £20,000.

The barn’s precarious state was publicised in 2009 when building-preservation journal Cornerstone published an article on the gaping holes and disrepair.

Michael Dunn, historic buildings inspector for English Heritage, said the building was the best preserved and largest surviving medieval timber barn in England, probably in Europe.

It is the ninth largest in Europe he said, adding that ‘for its size , and its state of preservation, it is unique.’

‘This is high status, this is the finest timber, and a very confident carpenter. This is as good as it gets,’ he said.

Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: ‘Harmondsworth Barn is one of the greatest medieval buildings in Britain, built by the same skilled carpenters who worked on our magnificent medieval cathedrals.

‘Its rescue is at the heart of what English Heritage does – protecting this nation’s architectural treasures and helping people discover our national story through them.

‘We will complete the repair of this masterpiece and, working with local people, will open it to the public to enjoy.’

A local group, the Friends of the Great Barn at Harmondsworth, formed around six years ago and have been dedicated to preserving the building, researching its history and keeping up the interest in its future, opening it each year to around 400-500 visitors during the Open House weekend.

The barn will now be open for free two Sundays a month between April and October, staffed by volunteers, with plans to open it every Sunday from next year.

Phil Rumsey, chairman of the group, said: ‘After working to save the barn over the last six years, it is wonderful that English Heritage have rescued this much-loved building. It will provide a great lift to the community.’

Archaeologist Justine Bayley told The Guardian: ‘If we had a pound for everyone who walks in here and says “wow!” we could have re-roofed the building twice over. It’s really the only appropriate response.’

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2093598/Medieval-barn-described-cathedral-Middlesex-joins-Stonehenge-national-collection-historical-sites.html#ixzz1kxEY35Ci

HisTOURies UK

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Intense and brooding images of Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments in a new exhibition are taking visitors deep into the heart of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Wessex’.

Archaeologists debate the purpose of Stonehenge, but for Hardy it was a haunting symbol of isolation and suffering.

The exhibition by three artists at Salisbury Museum mirrors the Dorset author’s emotional response to the archaeological sites he knew and used with such effect in his novels.

His use of landscape was highly symbolic and deeply emotive. Nowhere is that more clear than in his description of Stonehenge, which features in the climactic scene of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

In the dead of night, Tess stumbles upon the monument, and lies down to rest on an ancient altar, giving the allusion of her character as a sacrificial offering to a society that has cast her out. Hardy describes the isolation of the monument on Salisbury Plain, and once inside, the feeling of enclosure.

Symbolism is central to Hardy’s writing, which may be why so many artists use his work as their inspiration.

Artists Dave Gunning, David Inshaw and Rob Pountney have collaborated to show the dramatic landscapes and archaeology in media ranging from charcoal to steel etching and oil paint.

They share a common interest in how Hardy used landscape to symbolise the emotional and physical experiences of his characters.

He revived the Saxon name ‘Wessex’ as a part-real, part-dream landscape, thinly disguising place names so that Salisbury becomes Melchester and Dorchester becomes Casterbridge. Salisbury Plain is sometimes called the “Great Grey Plain”.

Dave Gunning, who was awarded the Year of the Artist Award in 2000-1 by the British Arts Council, has spent more than 25 years studying the prehistoric landscape in the West Country, particularly the ancient monuments within the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge and Avebury.

David Inshaw is one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists. His work is often inspired by literature that takes landscape and nature as its focus.

Rob Pountney has always been fascinated by Thomas Hardy’s work, and says the use of dramatic contrasts of light and shade in his work captures the striking visual aspects of the geological and archaeological features of the Wessex landscape, and his interpretation of Hardy’s response to them.

Salisbury Museum is the perfect place for the exhibition, which opened on Saturday and runs until April 14.

In Jude the Obscure, Hardy bases the college that Sue Bridehead attends on the training college for schoolmistresses that his sisters attended. This was the King’s House, Salisbury, and is now home to the museum.

Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester.

He became ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died at Max Gate just after 9pm on January 11, 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. The cause of death was cited, on his death certificate, as “cardiac syncope
Link: http://www.dorchesterpeople.co.uk

Mystical Landscape, Magical Tours
HisTOURies UK – Private Guided Tours of Stonehenge and the West Country

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THE discovery of a Stone Age temple on Orkney looks set to rewrite the archeological records of ancient Britain with evidence emerging it was built centuries before Stonehenge.

Stonehenge Wiltshire

Stonehenge

 Archeologists have so far found undisturbed artefacts including wall decorations, pigments and paint pots, which are already increasing their understanding of the Neolithic people.

Experts believe the huge outer wall suggests the site was not domestic, while the layout of the buildings has reinforced the view it might have been a major religious site. Archaeologists think the temple was built 500 years before Stonehenge, regarded as the centre of Stone Age Britain.

However, only 10% of the site at Ness of Brodgar has been excavated and it could be years before the scale and age of the discovery is fully understood.

It sits close to the existing Ring of Brodgar stone circles and the standing stones of Stenness, near to the town of Stromness.

The uncovered wall around the edges of the site was built with 10,000 tonnes of quarried rock and may have been up to 10 ft high.

Thermal technology also indicates the site could cover the same area as five football pitches, with some parts potentially older than Stonehenge, in south-west England, by as much as 800 years.

Charcoal samples from beneath the wall indicate it was built around 3200 BC. A 30mm high figurine with a head, body and two eyes, and called the “Brodgar Boy”, was also unearthed in the rubble of one of the structures.

About 18 months ago, a remarkable rock coloured red, orange and yellow was unearthed. This is the first discovery in Britain of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings.

Project manager Nick Card said the discoveries are unparalleled in British prehistory and that the complexity of finds is changing the “whole vision of what the landscape was 5000 years ago.” He said it was of “a scale that almost relates to the classical period in the Mediterranean with walled enclosure and precincts”.

Mr Card added: “It’s a huge discovery; in terms of scale and complexity there really is nothing else quite like it.

“At first we thought it was a settlement but the scale and complexity within the buildings makes you think along the lines of a temple precinct. It’s something you would associate with the classical world.”

Archeologist Julian Richards, who has written several books on Stonehenge, added: “The indication is that building was taking place when Stonehenge was still, relatively speaking, insignificant. We have tended to think we know how things were in the Neolithic period, then something like this turns that on its head.”

Full story: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/orcadian-temple-predates-stonehenge-by-500-years.16330802

Stonehenge Tourist Guide
HisTOURies UK – Mystical Landscape, Magical Tours

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A huge winter solstice feast might have taken place around Stonehenge some 4,500 years ago.

Abundant cattle and pig bones recently unearthed a few miles from the megalithic site suggest that prehistoric people celebrated the connection between the stone circle and the sky with hundreds of roasts.
Stonehenge

According to initial research led by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, U.K., the animals were walked from different places and for hundreds of miles to be slaughtered immediately after arrival at Durrington Walls, a massive circular earthwork, or henge, two miles northeast of Stonehenge. 

Parker Pearson’s research has shown that this site attracted people in droves as far back as Neolithic times.

“The considerable quantities of pig and cattle bones, pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris indicate that occupation and consumption were intense,” wrote Parker Pearson, who has was awarded a grant of £750,000 to analyse a range of materials found at the site.

So far, the archaeologist has found no evidence that Durrington was permanently inhabited. He believes that the intense human activity was linked to feasting during the solstices.

“The small quantities of stone tools other than arrowheads, the absence of grinding querns and the lack of carbonised grain indicate that this was a ‘consumer’ site. The midsummer and midwinter solstice alignments of the Durrington and Stonehenge architecture suggest seasonal occupation,” Parker Pearson said.

This year the winter solstice will be celebrated at Stonehenge on the morning of Thursday, December 22nd 2011

Stonehenge will open at 7.45 a.m. for people who brave the cold to watch the sun rise shortly after 8 a.m.

Full Article:  http://news.discovery.com/

 
Stonehenge Tour Guide.  Mystical Landscape, Magical Tours….
HisTOURies UK – The Best Tours in Ancient Britain

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Out of Earth Exhibition

Out of Earth Exhibition

Renowned potter Chris Carter and archaeologist Martin Green share their fascination with the prehistoric past of Cranborne Chase.  Through art and artefact, they reveal a story of the humans that occupied the landscape before history was written.

Out of the Earth explores a dialogue between artist and archaeologist as they respond to the objects excavated from flint-rich soils of Cranborne Chase.  Artefacts from Martin’s own museum, which displays the finds he has discovered over the years, will be on display alongside Chris’s artwork and objects from Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Heritage Museum.  Together, the objects describe and uncover the imprints left by farming, community and ritual activities in the past.

Chris and Martin describe themselves as ‘sons of the soil’, both having been raised on farms in the countrysides of Warwickshire and Dorset.  They met following a BBC4 radio show ‘Open Country’ which featured Down Farm on Cranborne Chase.  Martin had been excavating there since he inherited it in 1979 and Chris’s interest in the Chase landscape soon developed into a passion for exploring it through his art.

The exhibition shows new developments in Chris’s work and is itself a testimony to the continuing influence of prehistoric people on us today as their artistry, communities and ritual activities are re-discovered through archaeology.  Chris describes the way he searches for his pots in the clay as akin to the archaeologist’s search for an object in the earth.  Cranborne Chase has encouraged his art to take new routes which have seen him sculpting from flint and creating 2D collage works.  A deep-seated influence of the landscape and farming is apparent in his work; his pots suggest the sinuous twist of the plough and the symmetry of the stone axe, whilst the surface textures reflect the processes of people and nature on the landscape.

Both pot and artefact have a power and contemplative quality that makes Out of the Earth an exhibition not to be missed.  Here, the passion for the Cranborne landscape and for the people who lived on and moulded it, is deep-seated, inherent and heartfelt.  The stories revealed are told by two people who know the landscape intimately, both inside and out, and can tell those stories with an authority and understanding that cannot be disputed. 

Link: http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/exhibitions/174-out-of-the-earth.html
Sponsors: The Stonehenge Tour Company – www.StonehengeTours.com

Well worth a visit!

HisTOURies UK – Mystical Landscape, Magical Tours
The Best Tours in British History

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The jawbone which has caused so much excitement

The jawbone which has caused so much excitement

Could a piece of jawbone found at Torquay’s famous Kents Cavern caves be the oldest part of modern human to be unearthed in Europe?

A piece of jawbone excavated from a prehistoric cave in England is the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe, according to an international team of scientists. The bone first was believed to be about 35,000 years old, but the new research study shows it to be significantly older — between 41,000 and 44,000 years old, according to the findings that will be published in the journal Nature. The new dating of the bone is expected to help scientists pin down how quickly the modern humans spread across Europe during the last Ice Age. It also helps confirm the much-debated theory that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals. Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University and a member of the research team, explained that the fragment of maxilla — the upper jaw — containing three teeth was unearthed in 1927 in a prehistoric limestone cave called Kent’s Cavern in southwestern England. Records from the original excavations, undertaken by the Torquay Natural History Society located in Devon, England, indicate that the jawbone was discovered 10 feet 6 inches beneath the surface and was sealed by stalagmite deposits. “In 1989, scientists at Oxford University dated the bone as being about 35,000 years old. However, doubts were later raised about the reliability of the date because traces of modern glue, which was used to conserve the bone after discovery, were found on the surface,” Shapiro said. “We knew we were going to have to do additional testing to re-date the bone.” Because the remaining uncontaminated area of bone was deemed too small to re-date, the research team searched through the excavation archives and collections in the Torquay Museum to obtain samples of other animal bones from recorded depths both above and below the spot where the maxilla was found.

Members of the research team then obtained radiocarbon dates for the bones of wolf, deer, cave bear, and woolly rhinoceros, all of which were found close to the maxilla, and all of which could be dated at between 50,000 and 26,000 years old. Using a Bayesian statistical-modelling method, the scientists then were able to calculate an age for the maxilla. The new date indicates that the bone is between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.

Tom Higham, Deputy Director of Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and a member of the research team, said “Radiocarbon dating of ancient bones is very difficult to do. Because the initial date from this fragment of jawbone was affected by traces of modern glue, the initial measurement made in 1989 was too young. The new dating evidence we have obtained allows us, for the first time, to pinpoint the real age of this key specimen. We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe.”

Shapiro explained that the new and more-accurate date is especially important because it provides clearer evidence about the coexistence of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. “If the jawbone is, in fact, 41,000 to 44,000 years old, that means it was from a time when Neanderthals were still present in Europe, so we first had to confirm that the bone was from an anatomically modern human, and not a Neanderthal,” Shapiro said. Shapiro and her team first tried to extract mitochondrial DNA from one of the teeth, but there were insufficient amounts for valid DNA sequencing. Eventually, team members were able to use a virtual three-dimensional model based on a CT scan of the jawbone to carry out a detailed analysis of the fossil. They compared the external and internal shapes of the teeth with those of modern human and Neanderthal fossils from a number of different sites. They found early modern human characteristics in all but three of the 16 dental characteristics.

Studies of the maxilla have been under way for the last decade, but it was only with the application of the latest investigative and dating techniques that the research team was able to make this breakthrough in identifying the jawbone as the earliest modern human so far known from Europe.

“Comparative data were lacking for some of the traits our team was studying,” Shapiro said. “So, thankfully, our team member Tim Compton of the Natural History Museum in England helped by building a completely new database to help discriminate modern features from Neanderthal features. While the dominant characteristics are certainly modern, there are some that are ambiguous, or that fall into the Neanderthal range.” The research team believe that these ambiguous features may reflect inadequate sampling of modern human variation, shared primitive features between early modern humans and Neanderthals, or even interbreeding between the two species. “We’ll have to delve a little deeper and do more work to resolve these questions,” Shapiro said.

Another exciting feature of the new study is that it could help solve the apparent discrepancy about the known dates of the Aurignacian period — a time of cultural development in Europe and southwest Asia that lasted from around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. Previous researchers have discovered artefacts and tools from this period that are thought to have been produced by the earliest modern humans in Europe. However, strangely, these artifacts have been found to be much older than the rare skeletal remains found in the same vicinity. While Aurignacian tools and ornaments have been dated at as old as 44,000 years, tests to pinpoint the age of relevant human remains have resulted in dates that reach no further than between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, indicating a significant gap.

“The new date and identification of this bone from Kent’s Cavern is very important, as we now have direct evidence that modern humans were in northwest Europe about 42,500 years ago,” Higham said. “It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about the dispersal speed of our species across Europe during the last Ice Age. It also means that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something that a number of researchers have doubted.”

In addition to Shapiro, Higham, and Compton, other members of the research team include Chris Stringer, Roger Jacobi, and Chris Collins of the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom; Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in the United States; Barry Chandler of the Torquay Museum in the United Kingdom; Flora Gröning, Paul O’Higgins, and Michael Fagan of the University of Hull in the United Kingdom; Simon Hillson of University College London in the United Kingdom; and Charles FitzGerald of McMaster University in Canada.

The research was funded by two organizations in the United Kingdom: the Leverhulme Trust, established at the wish of William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, and the Natural Environment Research Council.
Link: http://esciencenews.com

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