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For a 200-year-old literary figure, Charles Dickens has much to say about the issues of today.

So believes Queen’s University English Prof. Robert Morrison, who says Dickens — born Feb. 7, 1812 — was both a man of his times and a forward-thinker.

In his many novels — including such classics as “A Christmas Carol,” “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist” — Dickens wrote about issues that still resonate today.

Morrison says Dickens brought attention to child poverty, over-population, environmental degradation and greed.

The popular storyteller’s 200th birthday is being celebrated Tuesday by admirers around the world.

Morrison says Dickens, who visited Canada briefly while on a reading tour, was the most popular author of his day and known world-wide.

“He is a man of his time but … he does map in a lot of what still preoccupies us today.”

“One of the things that I find really compelling about Dickens is his discussion of and sympathy for the vulnerable in society, especially children.”

Dickens was able to depict 19th-century Britain as a powerful country at the forefront of progress and technology, Morrison said.

But as Dickens so cleverly put it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of wealth and there are a whole bunch of people who are not sharing in any of it,” said Morrison.

“That alienation and sadness in the lower classes among poor people, Dickens gives these people an incredibly powerful voice.”

While a master at creating entertaining stories, comical characters and biting caricatures, the 19th-century writer also had his finger on the pulse of his times, says Morrison.

“Dickens represents alienation and poverty with a vividness and a chillingness that is remarkable. He really is very socially minded.”

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca

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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

The Best Tours in Ancient History
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An archaeologist believes a wall carving in a south Wales cave could be Britain’s oldest example of rock art.

The location of the wall carving is being kept secret for the time being

The location of the wall carving is being kept secret for the time being

The faint scratchings of a speared reindeer are believed to have been carved by a hunter-gatherer in the Ice Age more than 14,000 years ago.

The archaeologist who found the carving on the Gower peninsula, Dr George Nash, called it “very, very exciting.”

Experts are working to verify the discovery, although its exact location is being kept secret for now.

Dr Nash, a part-time academic for Bristol University, made the discovery while at the caves in September 2010.

He told BBC Wales: “It was a strange moment of being in the right place at the right time with the right kit.

“For 20-odd years I have been taking students to this cave and talking about what was going on there.

“They went back to their cars and the bus and I decided to have a little snoop around in the cave as I’ve never had the chance to do it before.

“Within a couple of minutes I was scrubbing at the back of a very strange and awkward recess and there a very faint image bounced in front of me – I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

He said that although the characteristics of the reindeer drawing match many found in northern Europe around 4,000-5,000 years later, the discovery of flint tools in the cave in the 1950s could hold the key to the carving’s true date.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

This drawing was done with the right hand and the niche is very, very tight”

End Quote Dr George Nash

“In the 1950s, Cambridge University undertook an excavation there and found 300-400 pieces of flint and dated it to between 12,000-14,000 BC.

“This drawing was done with the right hand and the niche is very, very tight and the engraving has been done by somebody using a piece of flint who has drawn a classic reindeer design.

“My colleagues in England have been doing some work in Nottinghamshire at Creswell Crags and got very nice dates for a red deer and one or two other images of around 12,000-14,000 BC.

“I think this [newly found carving] may be roughly the same period or may be even earlier.”

Glacial geology

The limestone cliffs along the Gower coast are known for their archaeological importance.

The Red Lady of Paviland, actually the remains of a young male, is the earliest formal human burial to have been found in western Europe. It is thought to be roughly around 29,000 years old.

It was discovered at Goat’s Hole Cave at Paviland on Gower in 1823 by William Buckland, then a geology professor at Oxford University.

Dr Nash added: “We know from the glacial geology of the area this was an open area just before the ice limit came down from the glaciers 15,000-20,000 years ago and it stops just about 2km short of the cave site.

“We know hunter fisher gatherers were roaming around this landscape, albeit seasonally, and they were burying their dead 30,000 years ago and making their mark through artistic endeavour between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.”

The find is now being officially dated and verified by experts at the National Museum of Wales and Cadw.

Its location will be revealed to the public in the future.

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Celtic Britain
(The Iron Age) c. 600 BC – 50 AD

Who were they? The Iron Age is the age of the “Celt” in Britain. Over the 500 or so years leading up to the first Roman invasion a Celtic culture established itself throughout the British Isles. Who were these Celts?

For a start, the concept of a “Celtic” people is a modern and somewhat

Celtic Britain was dominated by a number of tribes, each with their own well-defined territory. It is thanks to Roman chroniclers, such as Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus, that the names of individual tribes are known to us today, albeit in Romanized form.

Celtic Britain was dominated by a number of tribes, each with their own well-defined territory. It is thanks to Roman chroniclers, such as Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus, that the names of individual tribes are known to us today, albeit in Romanized form.

romantic reinterpretation of history. The “Celts” were warring tribes who certainly wouldn’t have seen themselves as one people at the time.

The “Celts” as we traditionaly regard them exist largely in the magnificence of their art and the words of the Romans who fought them. The trouble with the reports of the Romans is that they were a mix of reportage and political propaganda. It was politically expedient for the Celtic peoples to be coloured as barbarians and the Romans as a great civilizing force. And history written by the winners is always suspect.

Where did they come from? What we do know is that the people we call Celts gradually infiltrated Britain over the course of the centuries between about 500 and 100 B.C. There was probably never an organized Celtic invasion; for one thing the Celts were so fragmented and given to fighting among themselves that the idea of a concerted invasion would have been ludicrous.

The Celts were a group of peoples loosely tied by similar language, religion, and cultural expression. They were not centrally governed, and quite as happy to fight each other as any non-Celt. They were warriors, living for the glories of battle and plunder. They were also the people who brought iron working to the British Isles.

The advent of iron. The use of iron had amazing repercussions. First, it changed trade and fostered local independence. Trade was essential during the Bronze Age, for not every area was naturally endowed with the necessary ores to make bronze. Iron, on the other hand, was relatively cheap and available almost everywhere.

Hill forts. The time of the “Celtic conversion” of Britain saw a huge growth in the number of hill forts throughout the region. These were often small ditch and bank combinations encircling defensible hilltops. Some are small enough that they were of no practical use for more than an individual family, though over time many larger forts were built. The curious thing is that we don’t know if the hill forts were built by the native Britons to defend themselves from the encroaching Celts, or by the Celts as they moved their way into hostile territory.

Usually these forts contained no source of water, so their use as long term settlements is doubtful, though they may have been useful indeed for withstanding a short term siege. Many of the hill forts were built on top of earlier causewayed camps.

Celtic family life.
The basic unit of Celtic life was the clan, a sort of extended family. The term “family” is a bit misleading, for by all accounts the Celts practiced a peculiar form of child rearing; they didn’t rear them, they farmed them out. Children were actually raised by foster parents. The foster father was often the brother of the birth-mother. Got it?

Clans were bound together very loosely with other clans into tribes, each of which had its own social structure and customs, and possibly its own local gods.

Housing. The Celts lived in huts of arched timber with walls of wicker and roofs of thatch. The huts were generally gathered in loose hamlets. In several places each tribe had its own coinage system.

Farming. The Celts were farmers when they weren’t fighting. One of the interesting innovations that they brought to Britain was the iron plough. Earlier ploughs had been awkward affairs, basically a stick with a pointed end harnessed behind two oxen. They were suitable only for ploughing the light upland soils. The heavier iron ploughs constituted an agricultural revolution all by themselves, for they made it possible for the first time to cultivate the rich valley and lowland soils. They came with a price, though. It generally required a team of eight oxen to pull the plough, so to avoid the difficulty of turning that large a team, Celtic fields tended to be long and narrow, a pattern that can still be seen in some parts of the country today.

The lot of women. Celtic lands were owned communally, and wealth seems to have been based largely on the size of cattle herd owned. The lot of women was a good deal better than in most societies of that time. They were technically equal to men, owned property, and could choose their own husbands. They could also be war leaders, as Boudicca (Boadicea) later proved.

Language. There was a written Celtic language, but it developed well into Christian times, so for much of Celtic history they relied on oral transmission of culture, primarily through the efforts of bards and poets. These arts were tremendously important to the Celts, and much of what we know of their traditions comes to us today through the old tales and poems that were handed down for generations before eventually being written down.

Druids. Another area where oral traditions were important was in the training of Druids. There has been a lot of nonsense written about Druids, but they were a curious lot; a sort of super-class of priests, political advisors, teachers, healers, and arbitrators. They had their own universities, where traditional knowledge was passed on by rote. They had the right to speak ahead of the king in council, and may have held more authority than the king. They acted as ambassadors in time of war, they composed verse and upheld the law. They were a sort of glue holding together Celtic culture.

Religion. From what we know of the Celts from Roman commentators, who are, remember, witnesses with an axe to grind, they held many of their religious ceremonies in woodland groves and near sacred water, such as wells and springs. The Romans speak of human sacrifice as being a part of Celtic religion. One thing we do know, the Celts revered human heads.

Celtic warriors would cut off the heads of their enemies in battle and display them as trophies. They mounted heads in doorposts and hung them from their belts. This might seem barbaric to us, but to the Celt the seat of spiritual power was the head, so by taking the head of a vanquished foe they were appropriating that power for themselves. It was a kind of bloody religious observance.

The Iron Age is when we first find cemeteries of ordinary people’s burials (in hole-in-the-ground graves) as opposed to the elaborate barrows of the elite few that provide our main records of burials in earlier periods.

The Celts at War. The Celts loved war. If one wasn’t happening they’d be sure to start one. They were scrappers from the word go. They arrayed themselves as fiercely as possible, sometimes charging into battle fully naked, dyed blue from head to toe, and screaming like banshees to terrify their enemies.

They took tremendous pride in their appearance in battle, if we can judge by the elaborately embellished weapons and paraphernalia they used. Golden shields and breastplates shared pride of place with ornamented helmets and trumpets.

The Celts were great users of light chariots in warfare. From this chariot, drawn by two horses, they would throw spears at an enemy before dismounting to have a go with heavy slashing swords. They also had a habit of dragging families and baggage along to their battles, forming a great milling mass of encumbrances, which sometimes cost them a victory, as Queen Boudicca would later discover to her dismay.

As mentioned, they beheaded their opponents in battle and it was considered a sign of prowess and social standing to have a goodly number of heads to display.

The main problem with the Celts was that they couldn’t stop fighting among themselves long enough to put up a unified front. Each tribe was out for itself, and in the long run this cost them control of Britain.

(Note: The terms “England”, “Scotland”, and “Wales” are used purely to indicate geographic location relative to modern boundaries – at this time period, these individual countries did not exist).

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Ancient Britons were not averse to using human skulls as drinking cups, skeletal remains unearthed in southwest England suggest.

The level of modification suggests the ancient Britons were "manufacturing" something of use

The braincases from three individuals were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation.

The 14,700-year-old objects were discovered in Gough’s Cave, Somerset.

Scientists from London’s Natural History Museum say the skull-cups were probably used in some kind of ritual.

“If you look around the world there are examples of skull-cups in more recent times – in Tibetan culture, in Fiji in Oceania, and in India,” said Dr Silvia Bello, a palaeontologist and lead author of a scientific paper on the subject in the journal PLoS One.

“So, skulls have been used as drinking bowls, and because of the similarity of the Gough’s Cave skulls to these other examples, we imagine that that’s what these ancient people were using them for also,” she told BBC News.

Gough’s Cave is situated in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills.

Palaeo-investigations started there a hundred years ago, with many of the finds now held at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The site is particularly noteworthy for the discovery in 1903 of “Cheddar Man”, the complete skeleton of a male individual dating to about 10,000 years ago.

But the users – and owners – of the skulls discussed in the PLoS One article are actually from an earlier period in the history of the British Isles.

This was during a brief warm spike in a series of ice ages that allowed humans living in southern Europe to venture north into what was otherwise an utterly inhospitable landscape.

These Cro-Magnons, as we now call them, were hunter-gatherers living on their wits and, it seems, eating human flesh when the need and opportunity arose.

Gough’s Cave famously held the remains of human bones that had been butchered to extract marrow in exactly the same way as animal bones on the site had been processed.

Our modern sensibilities find the thought of cannibalism repulsive, but these people lived in a different age, Dr Bello said:

“They were a one man band; they were going out, hunting, butchering and then eating their kill. And they were extremely skilled at what they did, but then that’s how they survived.

“I think the production of the skull-cups is ritualistic. If the purpose was simply to break the skulls to extract the brain to eat it, there are much easier ways to do that.

“If food was the objective, the skull would be highly fragmented. But here you can really see they tried to preserve most of the skull bone; the cut marks tell us they tried to clean the skull, taking off every piece of soft tissue so that they could then modify it very precisely. They were manufacturing something.”

NHM colleague Professor Chris Stringer helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987 and is a co-author on the paper.

“This research shows how extensive the processing of these human remains was,” he said.

“It’s impossible to know how the skull-cups were used back then, but in recent examples they may hold blood, wine or food during rituals.”

At about 14,700 years old, the Gough’s Cave skull-cups would represent the oldest, recognised examples in the world.

The museum plans to put a detailed model of one of the skull-cups on display this March so that visitors can get a deeper insight the practices of these ancient Britons.

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Free guide to tracing your family history

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