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Swiss archaeologist discovers the earliest tomb of a Scythian prince

Deep in a swamp in the Russian republic of Tuva, SNSF-funded archaeologist Gino Caspari has discovered an undisturbed Scythian burial mound.

All the evidence suggests that this is not only the largest Scythian princely tomb in South Siberia, but also the earliest .

Gino Caspari made the most significant find in his career to date not with a shovel, but at a computer. A recipient of Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) funding, archaeologist Caspari discovered a circular structure on high-resolution satellite images of the Uyuk River valley (Siberia) on his computer screen. An initial trial dig carried out this summer by the Bern University scientist together with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Hermitage Museum confirmed his suspicion: the structure is a kurgan, a Scythian princely tomb.

Looking back at the beginnings

Working with a Swiss-Russian team, Caspari was able to prove that the burial mound – referred to as Tunnug 1 (or Arzhan 0) – was similar in construction to the kurgan Arzhan 1 located only ten kilometres away to the northeast. Arzhan 1 had long been regarded as the earliest Scythian princely tomb in the region, which is also known as the “Siberian Valley of Kings” owing to the numerous kurgans found there. The earliest princely tombs consist of a stone packing with a circular arrangement of chambers. The walls of the chambers are made of larch logs. Scythian burial objects typically include weapons, horse’s harnesses and objects decorated in the so-called animal style.

Wooden beams found by Caspari during the test excavation date back to the 9th century BC, predating Arzhan 1, which was built at the turn of the 9th to the 8th century BC and excavated in the 1970s. “We have a great opportunity here,” says a delighted Caspari, commenting on the results of the trial dig published in the current issue of Archaeological Research in Asia (*).

“Archaeological methods have become considerably more sophisticated since the 1970s. Today we have completely different ways of examining material to find out more about the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age,” remarks the SNSF-funded researcher.  He also stresses that the way we look at prehistoric times is changing radically thanks to genetics, isotope analysis and geophysical methods as well as developments in geographic information systems and remote sensing.

Protective armour of ice

The Arzhan 0 burial mound is in an inaccessible location amid swampy terrain, which also makes it harder for grave robbers to reach. “The kurgan is five arduous hours by off-road vehicle from the nearest settlement,” Caspari points out. As it may never have been disturbed, it could contain similar treasures to Arzhan 2. Between 2001 and 2004, a German team of archaeologists discovered an undisturbed burial chamber in Arzhan 2 containing the richest collection of burial artefacts ever found in the Eurasian steppe. Over a thousand gold objects had been placed with the two corpses in the tomb’s main chamber, in addition to magnificently adorned weapons, pots and horses with exquisite harnesses. Made of solid gold, the necklace of the Scythian prince from Arzhan 2 weighs 2 kilos alone. But the date of the burial is put at the 7th century BC, i.e. well into the Iron Age.

The climatic characteristics of the Siberian soil add to Caspari’s hopes. In the Uyuk Valley, the permafrost layer largely begins just a few metres below the surface. Everything above that thaws in summer, and organic material rots. However, beneath the thick stone packing of the kurgans, the rays of sunlight are unable to thaw out the soil.

“Very rarely ice lenses form directly beneath the kurgans,” explains Caspari. The ice prevents the decay of organic matter and preserves sensitive material. Caspari is expecting further finds to be unearthed in the course of the project: “If we’re lucky, we might even find some well-preserved wood carvings or carpets under the stones, or perhaps an ice mummy.”

Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

Discovering the World – Yucatán, the Culture is Nature, the Culture is Maya – Episode 226

From the white sandy beaches of the Maya river to huge green expanses where the sites of Calakmul or Coba barely emerge from the forest, the cameras take you to not only the most prestigious Maya sites, but also other lesser known locations that from an archaeological perspective are just as interesting. Spectacular caves and rocks, mangroves and nature reserves form the décor in which one of America’s most fascinating civilizations developed and flourished.


Episode Length: 00:52:00

Year: 2013

Episode: 226


 

An international group of scientists reveals the mystery about the origin of gold

An international group of scientists, with the participation of the University of Granada (UGR), has shed new light on the origin of gold, one of the most intriguing mysteries for Mankind since ancient times and which even today doesn’t have an answer that convinces the scientific community.

Their work, which has been recently published in the renowned Nature Communications journal, has established that the gold came to the Earth’s surface from the deepest regions of our planet. Thus, the Earth’s set of internal movements would have favored the ascent and concentration of the precious metal.

The researchers have found evidence of said process in the Argentinean Patagonia, which in addition represents the first register of gold found under the South American continent, specifically at a depth of 70 kilometers.

The researchers belong to various universities from Chile, Australia and France, and among them there’s also José María González Jiménez, a Ramón y Cajal researcher from the Department of Mineralogy and Petrology at the University of Granada.

The UGR researcher reminds that the interior of the Earth is divided into three large layers: crust, mantle and core. “The minerals we extract and which support our economy are located in the crust. And, although we are experts in taking advantage of them, we still know very little about their true origin. The search for gold has motivated migrations, expeditions and even wars, but its origin is one of the main questions in the field of mineral deposits genesis”.

The mantle is the layer separating the nucleus from the crust in which we all live, and its upper limit is located at about 17 kilometers under the oceans and 70 kilometers under the continents. “This distance is unreachable for Mankind, since we don’t possess the means for reaching the mantle and thus knowing more about it in a direct way yet”, the UGR researcher notes.

Nevertheless, the mantle can reach us thanks to volcanic eruptions, which bring with them small fragments, or ‘xenoliths’, from the mantle under the continents to the surface.

Those rare xenoliths are the ones that have been studied in this research. In them, the researchers have found tiny native gold particles, whose thickness is that of a human hair and whose origin is the deep mantle.

Research at the Deseado Massif

The focus of the research has been the region of the Deseado Massif at the Argentinean Patagonia, one of the largest auriferous provinces in the whole planet and whose gold mines are still being exploited.

Since the concentration of gold at that spot in the crust is very high the researchers have been able to figure out why mineral deposits are limited to some specific regions of the planet. Their hypothesis is that the mantle under that region is unique: it has a tendency to generate gold deposits on the surface due to its history.

“Said history dates back 200 million years, when Africa and South America were part of the same continent -González Jiménez says-. Their separation was caused, among other factors, by the ascent of a ‘mantle plume’ from the deep mantle, which broke the crust (much thiner and fragile) and caused the separation of the two continents. The ascent of said deep mantle plume generated a true chemical factory that enriched the mantle with metals, which would later generate the conditions for the creation of gold deposits. This time the process was caused by the movement of a tectonic plate under another, allowing the circulation of metal-rich fluids through the cracks, which precipitated the metals and concentrated them near the surface”.

The findings of the research team shed new light on the formation of mineral deposits, which are generally attributed to an origin in the crust itself, without taking into account the role of a deeper root from the mantle.

This new scientific evidence could contribute to a more advanced exploration of deposits that takes into account not only surface images or ‘radiographies’ of the crust for their search, but also studies the depths of the mantle, a region where the origin of one of the metals that has allured our species the most could be traced to.

UNIVERSITY OF GRANADA

Discovering the World – Yucatán, the Culture is Nature, the Culture is Maya – Episode 226

From the white sandy beaches of the Maya river to huge green expanses where the sites of Calakmul or Coba barely emerge from the forest, the cameras take you to not only the most prestigious Maya sites, but also other lesser known locations that from an archaeological perspective are just as interesting. Spectacular caves and rocks, mangroves and nature reserves form the décor in which one of America’s most fascinating civilizations developed and flourished.


Episode Length: 00:52:00

Year: 2013

Episode: 226


 

Discovering the World – Venice, Treasure Island – Episode 214

Canals, gondolas and sumptuous palaces… the legendary clichés will always be there when you set out to explore Venice. But behind the splendour of a unique artistic and cultural heritage there lies hidden a real city, with its inhabitants and lifestyle organized to meet the site’s geographical limitations.


Episode Length: 00:52:00

Year: 2012

Episode: 214


 

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