Dirt provides new insight into Roman burials

The first scientific evidence of frankincense being used in Roman burial rites in Britain has been uncovered by a team of archaeological scientists led by the University of Bradford. The findings – published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science – prove that, even while the Roman Empire was in decline, these precious substances were being transported to its furthest northern outpost.

The discovery was made by carrying out molecular analysis of materials previously thought to be of little interest – debris inside burial containers and residues on skeletal remains and plaster body casings. Until now, evidence for the use of resins in ancient funerary rites has rarely come to light outside of Egypt.

The samples came from burial sites across Britain, in Dorset, Wiltshire, London and York, dating from the third to the fourth century AD. Of the forty-nine burials analysed, four showed traces of frankincense – originating from southern Arabia or eastern Africa – and ten others contained evidence of resins imported from the Mediterranean region and northern Europe.

Classical texts mention these aromatic, antimicrobial substances as being used as a practical measure to mask the smell of decay or slow decomposition during the often lengthy funeral rites of the Roman elite. But it was their ritual importance which justified their transportation from one end of the empire to the other. Seen both as gifts from the gods and to the gods, these resins were thought to purify the dead and help them negotiate the final rite of passage to the afterlife.

Rhea Brettell from the University of Bradford, whose research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was the first to realise that these grave deposits were an untapped reservoir of information which could provide the missing evidence:

“Archaeologists have relied on finding visible resin fragments to substantiate the descriptions of burial rites in classical texts, but these rarely survive,” she says. “Our alternative approach of analysing grave deposits to find the molecular signatures of the resins – which fortunately are very distinctive – has enabled us to carry out the first systematic study across a whole province.”

These resins were only recovered from burials of higher status individuals, identified from the type of container used, the clothing they were wearing and items buried with them. This is consistent with the known value of frankincense in antiquity and the fact it had to be brought to Britain via what, at the time, was a vast and complex trade route.

University of Bradford Professor of Archaeological Sciences, Carl Heron, who led the research, adds: “It is remarkable that the first evidence for the use of frankincense in Britain should come from such seemingly unpromising samples yet our analysis demonstrates that traces of these exotic resins can survive for over 1700 years in what others would reject as dirt.”

The project was a collaboration between the University of Bradford and specialists at the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory in York, the Museum of London and the Universities of Bamburg and Bordeaux.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, research osteologist in the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, said: “This eye opening study has provided us with new and amazing insights into the funerary rituals of late Roman Britain. The University of Bradford’s significant research has also rewarded us with further understanding of a rich young Roman lady, used in the study, whose 4th century skeleton and sarcophagus was discovered near Spitalfields Market in the City of London in 1999, making her burial even more unique in Britain.”

The materials from which the samples were collected are held by Dorset County Museum, Museum of London, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, Wessex Archaeology, Winchester Museums and York Museums Trust.

The resins found in the study were from three different plant families:

  • Pistacia spp. (mastic/terebinth) from the Mediterranean or the Levant

  • Pinaceae (probably Pinus spp.) from Northern Europe

  • Boswellia spp. (frankincense/olibanum) from southern Arabia and eastern Africa

This study published in Journal of Archaeological Science covers inhumation burials. The University of Bradford researchers have subsequently also identified resins in a cremation burial from the Mersea Island barrow, where the resins were added to the ashes in the urn prior to burial. These findings are due to be published in the New Year.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University of Bradford

Scientists identify most ancient pinworm yet found

Scott Gardner examines parasite samples in the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln -  Craig Chandler/University Communications/University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Scott Gardner examines parasite samples in the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – Craig Chandler/University Communications/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

An egg much smaller than a common grain of sand and found in a tiny piece of fossilized dung has helped scientists identify a pinworm that lived 240 million years ago.

It is believed to be the most ancient pinworm yet found in the fossil record.

The discovery confirms that herbivorous cynodonts — the ancestors of mammals — were infected with the parasitic nematodes. It also makes it even more likely that herbivorous dinosaurs carried pinworms.

Scott Gardner, a parasitologist and director of the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was among an international group of scientists who published the study in the journal Parasites & Vectors.

“This discovery represents a first for our team and I think it opens the door to finding additional parasites in other species of fossil organisms,” he said.

The team found the pinworm egg in a coprolite — fossilized feces — collected in 2007 at an excavation site in Rio Grande do Sul state in southern Brazil.

The coprolite was collected at a site with abundant fossilized remains of cynodonts. Previously, an Ascarid-like egg — resembling a species of nematode commonly found in modern-day mammals — was found in the coprolite.

The pinworm egg, representing an undescribed or “new species,” was named Paleoxyuris cockburni, in honor of Aidan Cockburn, founder of the Paleopathology Association.

The structure of the pinworm egg placed it in a biological group of parasites that occur in animals that ingest large amounts of plant material. Its presence helped scientists deduce which cynodont species, of several found at the collection site, most likely deposited the coprolite.

Since the field of paleoparasitology, or the study of ancient parasites, emerged in the early 20th century, scientists have identified parasites of both plants and animals that date back as far as 500 million years ago.

The study of parasites in ancient animals can help determine the age of fossilized organisms and help establish dates of origin and diversification for association between host species and parasites. Coprolites are a key part of the study, enabling a better understanding of the ecological relationships between hosts and parasites.

Other members of the team were Jean-Pierre Hugot of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris; Victor Borba, Juliana Dutra, Luiz Fernando Ferreira and Adauto Araujo of Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro; Prisiclla Araujo and Daniela Leles of Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro; and Atila August Stock Da-Rosa of the Federal University of Santa Maria in Rio Grande do Sul.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Mass extinction led to many new species of bony fish

Cartilaginous fishes were very diverse during the Permian period. However, after severe losses among cartilaginous fishes during the Middle Permian extinction, bony fishes experienced a massive diversification in the subsequent Trias period. -  Image: UZH
Cartilaginous fishes were very diverse during the Permian period. However, after severe losses among cartilaginous fishes during the Middle Permian extinction, bony fishes experienced a massive diversification in the subsequent Trias period. – Image: UZH

Today, ray-finned fish, which belong to the bony fish, are by far the most biodiverse fish group in both salt- and freshwater. Their spectacular variety of forms ranges from eels, tuna, flounders and angler fish all the way to seahorses. With around 1,100 species, the second most biodiverse group is the cartilaginous fish, which are almost exclusively marine and include sharks, rays and chimaeras. Exactly why bony fish managed to prevail in different habitats is the subject of debate: Do they have a better body plan, which is suited to more ecological niches than that of the cartilaginous fish? Or are other factors involved in their successful distribution? Paleontologists from the University of Zurich now reveal that climate catastrophes in the past played a crucial role in the dominance of ray-finned fish today.

Cartilaginous fish greatly depleted by extinction events

The scientists studied the changes in biodiversity among cartilaginous and bony fish during the Permian and Triassic periods around 300 to 200 million years ago – an interval marked by several serious extinction events. They evaluated the global scientific literature on bony and cartilaginous fish from the last 200 years and collected data on diversity and body size, the latter providing an indication of the fish’s position in the food chains in the seas and freshwater.

Based on the data evaluated, the researchers demonstrate that cartilaginous fish, the most biodiverse fish group at the time, especially suffered heavily during an extinction event in the Middle Permian epoch while the Permian ray-finned fish escaped relatively unscathed. After an even bigger mass extinction close to the Permian-Triassic boundary, which wiped out 96 percent of all sea organisms, these bony fish diversified heavily. Of the ray-finned fish, the so-called Neopterygii (“new fins”) became particular biodiverse during the Triassic and, with over 30,000 species, today constitute the largest vertebrate group. Triassic Neopterygii primarily developed small species while the majority of the more basal ray-fins produced large predatory fish. Moreover, many bony fish developed morphological specializations in the Triassic, such as in the jaw apparatus, dentition or fins. This enabled new ways of locomotion, including gliding over the surface of the water, much like flying fish do today. Moreover, there is also evidence for viviparity in Triassic bony fish, for the first time ever.

Extinction events correlate with climate changes

Unlike bony fish, cartilaginous fish, which had already been heavily decimated by the end of the Permian, did not really recover. Many groups that were still biodiverse in the Permian disappeared completely or became extremely rare during the extinction events of the Permian and the Triassic. “Our results indicate that repeated extinction events played a key role in the development of today’s fish fauna,” explains Carlo Romano, a postdoc at the University of Zurich’s Paleontological Institute and Museum. Most of these severe crises are linked to massive volcanic activity, global climate changes and sea level lowstands.


C. Romano, M. B. Koot, I. Kogan, A. Brayard, A. V. Minikh, W. Brinkmann, H. Bucher, J. Kriwet, Permian-Triassic Osteichthyes (bony fishes). Diversity dynamics and body size evolution. Biological Reviews, November 28, 2014. S. 1-44. doi: 10.1111/brv.12161.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University of Zurich

New evidence of ancient rock art across Southeast Asia

Latest research on the oldest surviving rock art of Southeast Asia shows that the region’s first people, hunter-gatherers who arrived over 50,000 years ago, brought with them a rich art practice.

Published this week in the archaeological journal Antiquity, the research shows that these earliest people skilfully produced paintings of animals in rock shelters from southwest China to Indonesia. Besides these countries, early sites were also recorded in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Griffith University Chair in Rock Art Professor Paul Taçon led the research which involved field work with collaborative international teams in rugged locations of several countries.

The oldest paintings were identified by analysing overlapping superimpostions of art in various styles as well as numerical dating. It was found that the oldest art mainly consists of naturalistic images of wild animals and, in some locations, hand stencils.

The research shows that 35,000 – 40,000 year old dates for some rock art in Sulawesi, Indonesia announced in October by Griffith University Senior Research Fellow Maxime Aubert is not an anomaly. Instead, the practice was widespread across the region.

Professor Taçon said that, “As with the early art of Europe, the oldest Southeast Asian images often incorporated or were placed in relation to natural features of rock surfaces.

“This shows a purposeful engagement with the new places early peoples arrived in for both symbolic and practical reasons.

“Essentially, they humanised landscapes wherever they went, transforming them from wild places to cultural landscapes. This was the beginning of a process that continues to this day.”

But unlike in Europe, the oldest surviving rock art of Southeast Asia is more often found in rock shelters rather than deep caves, suggesting experiences in deep caves cannot have been their inspiration as has long been argued for Europe.

“This significantly shifts debates about the origins of art-making and supports ideas that this fundamental human behaviour began with our most ancient ancestors in Africa rather than Europe.

“The research supports the idea suggested by the early Indonesian rock art dates that modern humans brought the practice of making semi-permanent images in rocky landscapes to Europe and Asia from Africa,” Professor Taçon said.

These results have implications not only for our understanding of Southeast Asian and European rock art but also Australian, because in Kakadu-Arnhem Land and other parts

of northern Australia the oldest surviving rock art also consists of naturalistic animals and stencils.

Thus the practice of making these sorts of designs may have been brought to Australia at the time of initial colonisation, but it may alternatively have been independently invented or resulted from as yet unknown forms of culture contact.

All three possibilities are equally intriguing. New investigations in both northern Australia and Southeast Asia are currently being planned.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the Griffith University

OU professor and team discover first evidence of milk consumption in ancient dental plaque

Led by a University of Oklahoma professor, an international team of researchers has discovered the first evidence of milk consumption in the ancient dental calculus–a mineralized dental plaque–of humans in Europe and western Asia. The team found direct evidence of milk consumption preserved in human dental plaque from the Bronze Age to the present day.

“The study has far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between human diet and evolution,” said Christina Warinner, professor in the OU Department of Anthropology. “Dairy products are a very recent, post-Neolithic dietary innovation, and most of the world’s population is unable to digest lactose, often developing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.” Warinner led a group of researchers from the universities of York and Copenhagen, and the University College London.

Understanding how, where and when humans consumed milk products is a necessary link between human consumption and their livestock. The new research provides direct protein evidence that the milk of all three major dairy livestock–cattle, sheep and goats–has been consumed by human populations for at least 5,000 years. This corroborates previous evidence for milk fats identified on pottery and cooking utensils in early farming communities.

“The discovery of milk proteins in human dental calculus will allow scientists to unite these lines of evidence and compare the genetic traits and cultural behaviors of specific individuals who lived thousands of years ago,” said Warinner.


A research article, “Direct evidence of milk consumption from ancient human dental calculus” has been published in Nature’s Scientific Reports at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep07104. The research was supported by the Swiss Foundation for Nutritional Research, the Zurich Maxi Foundation, the University of York’s Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (Wellcome Trust) and EUROTAST (EU Marie Curie).

For more information on this research, please contact Christina Warinner at christina.warinner@ou.edu or visit the OU Department of Anthropology website at http://LMAMR.org.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University of Oklahoma