Broken cooking pots, rusty coins, religious objects that can destroy the world if they fall into the wrong hands: your everyday archaeology find is always a little interesting, but not always a discovery of poignancy or delight.
Obviously Pompeii and all those people made of ash are pretty moving. But that was part of a grand and horrifying event.
We decided to go in search of small and beautiful and sometimes spooky moments from a long time ago. The following were all uncovered in the last year.
Kindergarten art, maybe 226,000 years old
There’s an ongoing debate about who created the first artwork – or at least the oldest surviving one – discovered so far.
In February, Australian scientists discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo on the ceiling of a rock shelter in the Kimberley region. The artwork was two metres long, painted in red ochre but somewhat faded.
A month earlier, archaeologists discovered the world’s “oldest-known representational artwork”: a painting on limestone of a wild pig, 45,000 years old.
Still, the oldest-known cave painting of a red hand stencil in a Spanish cave was the work of a Neanderthal, 64,000 years old.
All of that was put in the shade in September, when an international research group announced that a sequence of hand and footprints discovered at the Quesang hot springs on the Tibetan Plateau were between 169,000 and 226,000 years old.
It’s assumed this was the work of Neanderthals or even the mysterious Denisovans. What was the meaning of these prints? What statement was being made?
Turns out the work was done by two children, just having fun. One did the hands, the other did the feet. Their work has since been fossilised and the message is clear: “We were here.”
Read more here.
They said they’d love each other forever
In a June research paper, Chinese archaeologists describe a rare “lovers’ tomb” featuring the skeletons of a man and woman locked in an eternal embrace.
The grave – found in an ancient cemetery discovered beneath a construction site in Datong, in Shanxi province – is 1500 years old, and the woman still wears a plain silver band on her ring finger.
“The message was clear – husband and wife lay together, embracing each other for eternal love during the afterlife,” a group of 10 scholars wrote in the paper study published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
“This joint burial could be direct evidence of a full display of love and the importance of the rings in love.”
The authors suggest: “It is likely that the wife sacrificed herself to be buried with her dead husband, though other scenarios could not be ruled out.”
It’s presumed that the couple were arranged to lie together in their embrace by the people who buried them.
Read more here.
Oldest drawing of a ghost
Among the backroom collections at the British Museum was a clay tablet fragment from ancient Babylon, 3500 years old. It had been collecting dust since the 19th century, never been displayed, and might well have gone uncelebrated.
This changed when Dr Irving Finkel, a curator in the museum’s Middle Eastern department, was researching a book on ghosts and how they were depicted in antiquity.
He found that the tablet was, according to a report at artnet.com, inscribed with “detailed instructions on how to rid yourself of a specific type of ghost, a bothersome older man”.
The drawing shows an older thin man tied to another figure, “an attractive young woman who was intended to lead him back to the underworld, where they would both remain”.
Dr Finkel explained: “You had this situation where people tended to be sympathetic towards ghosts unless they’re really foul. When they were, there were specialist magicians or exorcists who knew the right spells and rituals and what you could do to get rid of the ghost, drive it out and send it back to the underworld where it belonged.”
It’s thought this may be the oldest drawing of a ghost in captivity, so to speak.