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Melting Stone With Plants: Was The Mythical ‘Green Chisel’ A Real Ancient Tool?

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Melting Stone With Plants: Was the Mythical 'Green Chisel' A Real Ancient Tool?
Photo Credit: Anjocreatif

Archaeology is not an exact science. It is full of doubts, uncertainties, surprises, and unanswered questions. One of its unsolved mysteries concerns the methods of ancient stone work, which is lost in the mists of time. All existing stones, listed in the Mohs Scale according to their hardness – from the 1st degree (softest, talc), to the 10th (hardest, diamond) – are workable with tools made of something harder than them. This means they are worked and altered with a mineral tool with a higher degree of hardness, or more often with a metal tool.

From the 1st to the 6th degree (mostly calcareous stones), copper or bronze tools are enough. But for stones from the 7th upwards (much harder and mostly siliceous) we need iron or steel tools. In this article, we are interested in the examples of how ancient stoneworkers worked the oldest, hardest stones.

Why the Hardest Stones?

Many of these finds date back to periods or geographical contexts where iron did not exist: i.e. in the Old World before 1200 BC and in the New World before the Conquest. Nevertheless, surprisingly, just the hardest stones were used by ancient peoples in those situations – and with great skill and extremely sophisticated workmanship. Indeed, it seems that they were even preferred, despite the difficulties in working them (during which, moreover, they can chip badly). It was as if shaping them was commonplace for the ancient stonemasons.

We have emeralds, quartzes, obsidian jewels, and amulets with very fine incisions and carvings; slender vases in syenite with very thin sides with a smooth, impeccable finish; the cup of King Narmer, in porphyry; diorite tablets with bas-reliefs on a perfectly smooth background, and long texts in minute hieroglyphic or cuneiform characters, traced with perfect graphics, without smudges, as if they had been stamped rather than carved.

And then there’s the disquieting geometries in diorite of Puma Punku, of maniacal rigor and the incredible puzzles of the Peruvian walls (and Egyptian and Japanese walls too), with millimetre-precision junctions between the immense andesite blocks with 20, 30, or even 40 corners. There are also basaltic boulders three meters high as the grandiose Olmec heads. The 70-ton granite blocks with very clear cuts, that were emptied to create the sarcophagi of the Serapeum of Saqqara, whose even the internal surfaces are as smooth as the outer ones, are another marvel. The shiny cylinders of ‘carrots’ also appear to be dug into granite by drills that seemed to have been as fast as their modern counterparts.

All this work was done by ancient stonemasons on hard siliceous rocks – up to the 8th or 9th degree of the Hardness Scale.

They made vases with smooth finishes and bas-reliefs without smudges, as if they had been stamped rather than carved. (Heagy1 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

None of this, in theory, was feasible by just muscular strength and with the ancient tools in the archaeological record. The stone workers apparently manipulated hard stone with a high degree of skill – but they were without strong saws, bits, special steel drills, and motor-powered tools. It simply seems impossible. But how did they do it? With what?

Inferences and Theories

Obviously, that inexplicable technical perfection has generated a lot of inferences and theories of every kind, many of which arbitrarily transpose means, methods, and knowledge of today into the most distant past. We see a hypothesis suggesting stone was ground, mixed with water, and cast into molds (with a disproportionate expenditure of energy). In another one, the stone is said to be softened by a mix of sour plant juices and shaped, then it would harden.

Other suggestions say the ancient people used lasers, radioactivity and so on, or that they had very advanced machines provided by a mysterious lost civilization. And, of course, there’s the hypothesis that the work was done with the assistance of aliens. But no evidence has ever been found for such devices.

To this technological enigma, excluding fanciful speculations, I intend to offer an explanation in line with ‘Occam’s razor’: with all factors being equal, the solution to a problem is the simplest one.

Using Acid to Work the Hardest Stones

The thesis is that the only practical system available to act on the mentioned minerals, refractory to (or unmanageable by) physical action, was chemistry – specifically exploiting the natural capacity of certain elements to break down other materials due to their incompatibility; incompatible chemical principles put in contact with each other will react by destroying each other. That is, to cause a guided reaction, and to stop it at the right time: the stone would be disintegrated by treating it with a corrosive substance (one incompatible with it) that chemically attacked it, instead of, or before tools were used on it.

In short, an acidic chemical would do most (or part) of the work necessary to produce the desired effect – all while saving time, effort, and material. This, as we shall see, was entirely within the reach of the ancient craftsmen, even if it is not clear how they came to understand that natural phenomenon and its possible advantageous uses.

The fact is that this intuition was, apparently, operatively implemented, and in a very simple and not at all mysterious way. Because – unlike other proposed solutions – the acid does not change the structure of the stone, but literally liquefies it and, if carefully managed, it can eliminate from a block all the superfluous parts (or materials) not included in the project design.

Acid-Washed Stone – a common treatment to show the beauty of a stone without cutting and polishing. (cobalt123 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The difference compared to manual tools is that it does it without friction – it’s done at the atomic level . That’s all.

We have both direct (material) and indirect (immaterial) clues of the reliability of this hypothesis.

Direct clues are the concrete evidence of the use of that method in artifacts and buildings. The results of the process described above are stunning when they are observed with the naked eye.

But I have no doubt that when they are enlarged under a microscope they would show the uniformity of a ‘controlled dissolution’ made by an acid even in the hardest parts of the stone to reach. This is in contrast to scratches which would have been made by metal tools. As a ‘chemical chisel,’ acid can creep everywhere.

As I said above, there is no archaeological evidence for modern technologies and tools used in the ancient past. But acid has always existed in nature. If we wanted to, we could still use it today.

With it, we could – drop by drop – engrave and pierce precious stones, create the empty cavity of a vase and smooth its sides, model statues, and even make coffins out of huge granite blocks. Layer by layer the acid would consume the inside of the stone and smooth it; or, if we wanted to mark it instead, we could cover it with a film of wax (which doesn’t react to it), scratch away the wax in areas we wanted to mark the stone, and then pour acid on those areas.

This could explain how Moses engraved the Tables of the Law, as the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48b,  describes how Shamìr is used to cut stone. To write on stone at that time, it would make sense that Moses used the same method of first marking the letters with ink, then passing Shamìr over them, and then they were engraved.

Did Moses engrave the Tables of the Law with acid? (James Steidl / Adobe)

By penetrating natural fissures with acid, we could remove boulders from their rocky bed and cut them as we wish. And maybe we could use it in the building industry in the form of a corrosive paste or mortar which disappeared after having eaten away the roughness and smoothed away the differences in height between boulders. It would eliminate the space needed for joints and give the structure the appearance of a dry-stone wall.

I believe this was the only way that it was possible for the ancient stonemasons to work very hard silicon-based stones. It would also be used for softer stones like limestone, marble, and alabaster, since the same acid also attacks all other types of stone. Indeed it attacks every material except gold, lead, and wax.

For us, it is important because it is the only natural solvent for silicon – and that aspect allows us to identify it with certainty because there is nothing else capable of so much. It is hydrofluoric acid (chemical symbol HF), one of the most aggressive, extremely reactive, caustic, and poisonous chemicals. The ancient stonemasons used that. That was their secret tool.

Sourcing the Secret Stonework Tool

But how did they get it? What did they extract it from?

Indirect clues will indicate its origin. Ancient legends speak of a magical ‘something’ that could weaken or destroy every type of stone: a ‘something’ that, from time immemorial, was reserved for the mighty ones and unknown to everyone else. But at a certain moment, it was replaced by iron, abandoned, and eventually forgotten. That’s how things happened in the Old World at least; in the New one, history handed it over to oblivion.

There isn’t much to tell though.

There is a transient reference to the ‘farr’ of Persian king Zal which was a symbol of his celestial investiture, which acted as HF. Another, no less scanty reference mentions an obscure ‘plant mixture’ conceived by Egyptian scholars to soften stone. This was perhaps the same ‘unknown cement’ that was thick as a sheet of paper and that the Arab scholar Abd el-Latif (12th century) said connected the stones of the Great Pyramid, in which some ‘plant residues’ have recently been found. This is all from Egypt, although there traces of the technique abound.

Instead, we find a lot of data (certainly from Egyptian sources) in myths and texts, including the Bible, of ancient Israel, however there this discovery – a gift of God, which later disappeared – was only used twice. The Jews called it Shamir.

Was unknown cement used in the construction of the Great Pyramid? (primavera108 / Adobe)
Shamír

The first time Shamir was used was to engrave the Tables of the Law and the names of the 12 tribes on the gems of priestly vestments. The second time was to cut the stones of the Temple of Solomon as God commanded: these were calcareous stones, but the gems were almost all siliceous, which confirms that Moses used hydrofluoric acid – Shamìr.

The description of its appearance is rather vague and ambiguous, but its behavior isn’t. It worked the hardest stones and left perfect, smooth, residue-free surfaces; it had to be kept in a lead basket (an airtight vase would have exploded), and insulated with wool and bran; it had heavy collateral effects (it scalded Moses and poisoned and killed the Temple workers); in the long run it became inactive.

This is the unequivocal picture of the action of that powerful acid, but it does not help us to understand its origin and nature.

Excluding that it was, as hypothesized, mineral (diamond) or animal (worm), maybe it was plant-based?

Some writings related to Shamìr warn not to identify it with Euforbia, a stinging shrub; but why would they do that, if not because it was also a plant? And unfortunately, the information stops there.

Connecting Shamír and the Pito of Peru

But the astonishing answer comes, unexpectedly, from distant Peru, where oral tradition says ever since the ‘ancients’ started to assemble the stones of their huge walls, they used the mysterious Pito, a plant that was described as a low creeping grass with red leaves.

The tradition affirms that Pito or, rather, it’s extract, is capable of melting every stone (the explorer Percy Fawcett talks about an amphora stolen from an Inca tomb, incidentally broken, and of how the liquid leaked out and dissolved the stone below) and iron too. It also declares that – as God had given Israel Shamir to work on the Temple – the local gods had once given men, in order to alleviate their labors, two plants: coca and Pito; not to be confused, however, with the caustic Efedra. Does it remind us of something?

Archaeologists still argue as to how the precise stonework found in places such as Cusco in Peru was achieved. (CC BY 2.0)

Jewish myths mention a wild rooster that used Shamìr to make many small holes in rocks in which to plant trees. In Peru they also associate Pito with a bird which, according to several witnesses, is accustomed to rubbing the leaves of the plant onto rocks with its beak: this softens the stone, in which then it digs itself a nest.

But there’s more. The wild rooster also used Shamìr to erode the glass slab placed upon its nest covering its little ones and the Peruvian bird did exactly the same with the Pito herb, but that slab was made of iron.

These similar narratives cannot be pure coincidence. In different contexts, these birds are apparently using two distinct corrosive chemical agents which act in exactly the same way in the stories. So, on both sides of the ocean, we have two elements with common characteristics and the same range of action: the unique capacity to attack silicon.

And now everything can be reduced to a simple syllogism: if two factors have the same effect on a third, it means that they are equal. Even the legends tell the same story. In short, the active component of Pito and Shamìr was the same.

Moreover, from the descriptions we have established that Shamir was HF and that Pito was a plant; therefore HF was derived from a plant. Ultimately both those substances – Pito and Shamìr – were actually only one with the same formula: hydrofluoric acid, HF, which was extracted from plants. However, they were probably not of the same species because the same plants do not grow in the two geographical areas.

But it is also true that over 40 plants of various species have high contents of the poisonous HF, which they absorb from soil and synthesize, to protect themselves from herbivores, in the form of a compound called fluoroacetic acid.

And to extract hydrofluoric acid from fluoroacetic acid is no more difficult than to make tea: you just have to boil the plant in water, distill the solution, and then concentrate it. HF dissolved in water is manageable, very carefully, at room temperature.

Shamìr/Pito: Continents Apart, Techniques in Common

At this point it is relevant to identify Shamìr and Pito with the richest HF spontaneous plants.

The most probable suspects are Dichapetalum in Africa and Palicourea in South America (coincidentally, the areas of our interest). Both of them are not very attractive and of little economic value, having no known uses (only as a rat poison for Dichapetalum). Today they are not the object of any particular attention.

But, in the mists of time, the discovery of their special virtue, exploited in various ways according to their availability and needs, enabled the first civilizations to create and advance in epigraphy, sculpture, and architecture.

In Peru and Bolivia, where Palicourea abounds, it was used directly and in abundance in the pre-Inca building industry. In Egypt and outside Africa, I believe that only the acid derived from Dichapetalum was used to carry out smaller, expensive works.

Dichapetalum plant. (Vinayaraj / CC BY-SA 3.0 

Who by, where, and when that precious resource was identified is not known and the “how” is perhaps trivial. Maybe the ancient peoples really noticed what the birds were doing or they saw the action of the plants themselves. Regardless, ancient craftsmen learned from experience, and, as they had learned to use fire, water, and wind energy, they also discovered plant or animal juices that melted stones, healed, or killed. They observed that strength, realized its potential, and put it to good use.

Yet the real mystery is not how that knowledge was acquired, nor who transmitted it to whom, but how it travelled between such distant continents. Because, if it is impossible to believe in a coincidence like that shown by myths, it is equally impossible to understand its path unless we rethink the past on very different terms. But this is another story to be investigated elsewhere.

I wish I could demonstrate the validity of this hypothesis by giving it proof and concrete and irrefutable evidence. Modern science can do it. I would like those who have asked the same questions about these mysteries to join me in this research and finally give credit to the skills and knowledge of those who preceded us.

This article (Melting Stone With Plants: Was the Mythical ‘Green Chisel’ A Real Ancient Tool?) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Archeology

What Was Life Like In Sumer, History’s First Civilization?

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What Was Life Like in Sumer, History’s First Civilization?

Life went through some incredible changes when the first cities were built. Up until then, nearly every person had to work as a farmer or a hunter, moving from place to place in a constant struggle to survive.

All that changed about 7,000 years ago, when Sumer, the first civilization, began. For the first time in human history, people moved into the safety of a walled city. For the first time, they didn’t have to hunt or farm. They could become builders, astrologers, and teachers. They could develop things that, until then, no one had ever even dreamed of.

It was the dawn of history; the greatest change humans have ever undergone.

What must it have been like? What was it like for the first people who put aside their farms and their hunting tools and moved into the first cities? And how different was it from life today?

Artist’s impression of prehistoric hunters. (We Have Concerns)

It’s impossible to say for sure what they experienced, but in the ruins of the first cities, there are a few hints. Archaeologists and historians have scoured over the remains of Sumer to give us a glimpse into life in mankind’s first civilization.

Life Revolved Around the Temple

The first cities started as temples to the gods. They were built around a temple and run by priests called “Ensi” who ran religious services and acted as kings to the people who lived near them.

They were religious centres through-and-through. The first people likely moved in to be close the temples of their gods; there wouldn’t have been a non-believer among them. They were expected to make an offering before setting up their homes, and they had to contribute a part of what they grew to the temple.

Statuette of a Sumerian worshipper from the Early Dynastic Period III. (Luis García / CC BY SA 3.0)

As the communities around these temples grew, though, their purposes changed. The first shops and trade networks were set up in the courtyards of the temples, and the first secular jobs were created. Some of the elite left their farms and became professional traders, seamstresses, artists, and messengers.

Reconstruction of the Ziggurat at Ur. (Public Domain)
Beer & Taxes

The priest-kings set up an early system of taxation to feed their workers. Every family living within the protection of the city had to contribute a part of what they grew to the temple. The temple would then use what they’d earned to feed their priests, their craftsmen, and their traders.

Beer was usually how people were paid. In Sumer, beer wasn’t just a way to get a drunk. It was as thick as a milkshake and loaded with nutrients. More often than not, it would be served as the main course of a meal. That it got you drunk was just an added bonus.

The oldest depiction of beer-drinking shows people sipping from a communal vessel through reed straws. (Brauerstern)

The other way the temple would tax you was to call you in to work on public building projects. People would be called out of their homes and forced to spend a few months upgrading the temple or building new city walls. And soon, through the power of conscripted labour, these cities became the safest places on earth.

Life Inside and Outside the City Walls

The city walls served two purposes. Ostensibly, they were a way to keep the people safe. They protected them against the neighbouring cities, where warlords were starting to wrestle power from the priests and invade their neighbours. But in practice, they also served a second purpose. They made a thick, clay wall that divided the rich from the poor.

The most powerful men were those who didn’t grow their own food. They were the priests, the craftsmen, the administrators, and the traders who lived off the taxes gathered from the poor.

They lived in homes made out of mud bricks, designed to keep them cool through the blistering Sumerian summers. They had slaves and hired entertainers who would come into their homes and sing them songs or tell them stories while the family feasted.

But on the outside were the farmers. They spent their days tilling the soils and growing their crops, then came home to a hut made out of reeds tied together in tight bundles. They slept on mats of woven straw on the floor, and when it got cold, they burned palm fronds in a shallow pit in the middle of their huts.

The Beginning of Education

Life could change at any moment. The lowliest farmer could work his way up to the top as long as he was willing to work hard enough.

The farmers owned their land, and if they worked hard enough, they could buy more. Then they could sell their land out to others at a profit and grow even wealthier. Steadily, they could work their way up to a place inside the city walls.

Literacy was the best way in. As the Sumerians started to trade, tax, and hire workers, they found a need to keep track of everything they’d done. They developed the first written language, cuneiform. Reading and writing became the key to being an administrator, and the first schools were built.

Learning cuneiform, though, wasn’t easy. It took twelve years in school, starting at the age of seven, for a boy to learn everything he needed to know to become a scribe or a priest. He would work from dusk to dawn copying down what his teacher wrote on a tablet, and he’d often get beaten if he made a mistake.

The very wealthy would hire private tutors to keep teaching their children even after the classes ended. A noble boy who learned enough could become a priest, and that would make him one of the most powerful men in the city. Sumerian parents were willing to sacrifice everything to get their children to the top.

Social Status

In practice, though, it was very difficult to change your status. The schools were prohibitively expensive, and so it was very rare that anyone could move up in social standing. While a few living inside the city walls managed to turn their children into priests, there’s no record of anyone on the outside ever successfully moving in.

And if things went poorly, they could get a lot worse. If a family built up enough debts, they could be forced to sell their children into slavery. And if they still couldn’t make their payments, they could be dragged into slavery themselves.

Worker using an adze for cutting a piece of a chariot. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC. From Eshnunna. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY SA 2.5)

Still, some made it. Some who became slaves managed to earn enough to buy their own freedom. And some commoners rose all the way to the top. One woman, named Ku-Baba, started life as a tavern keeper and, in time, became to supreme ruler of a town called Kish.

Above all, though, they got the chance to be part of one of the greatest experiments in human history. Within their city walls, the first written language was created, the first trading routes were built, and the first laws were established. They were to witness the birth of civilization.

This article (What Was Life Like In Sumer, History’s First Civilization?) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Giant Face Of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found In Mexico

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Giant Face of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found in Mexico
Photo Credit: INAH

In the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán on the Yucatán Peninsula, an archaeological team digging at a lightly explored site near the tiny, picturesque village of Ucanha uncovered something highly unusual. It was a giant human-looking face, as tall as a person and sculpted in stucco. Its features clearly identified it as a Mayan mask of the ancient Maya civilization, which enjoyed total hegemony in this part of the world more than one thousand years ago.

Mayan Mask Discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula

The Maya stucco relief was first discovered in 2017. Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico spent three years carefully restoring the sculpture, between periods when it was temporarily reburied to prevent its rapid deterioration from exposure to the elements. They were able to positively date the Mayan mask to the Late Pre-Classical era of the ancient Maya civilization, meaning it was created sometime between 300 BC and 250 AD.

View of the giant stucco face, or Mayan mask, in situ. The face was discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula near the village of Ucanha. (INAH)

In their statement announcing the finding, INAH stated that sculptures like these “represent the faces of individuals with particular features that can be associated with deities or with characters of prominent social status.” It was a common practice in Maya civilization to decorate buildings with large-scale, embedded decorative sculptures, which often featured the faces of rulers or gods. 

Relics like this are a rare find, however, since so many of the sculptures that once existed have been irrevocably damaged, or destroyed, or remain deeply buried in undiscovered locations. Nevertheless, similar sculpted stucco reliefs have been found in the villages of Acanceh and Izamal. But those are the only other giant faces discovered on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Recognizing the delicate nature of their discovery, the archaeologists have now reburied the fully-restored sculpture, thereby guaranteeing its preservation. However, tourists interested in getting a closer look at ancient Maya stucco reliefs can do so by traveling to Acanceh. There, several sculptures honouring Maya deities have been put on display to the public, in the town’s “Palace of the Stuccos.”

Detail of the stucco Mayan mask discovered near the village of Ucanha in Mexico. (INAH)
Olmec Influence on the Maya

The giant stucco Mayan mask represents outstanding examples of ancient Maya art. Maya gods and rulers were routinely honoured in sculpted form, and in addition to stucco, Maya artists also sculpted in stone, wood, bone, shells, and fired clay. The Maya interest in creating human-like sculpted faces dates back to the first millennium BC. Their artistic endeavours in this area were clearly influenced by their contacts with the Olmecs, the so-called “Mother Culture of Mesoamerica” that occupied the expansive land regions to the west of the Yucatán Peninsula until around 400 BC, when their societies vanished for reasons undetermined. 

Little is known about the nature of the contacts between the Olmecs and the Maya. But Olmec influence on Maya culture was profound. The Olmecs affected the Maya people’s spiritual beliefs, practices and even their recreational activities, as well as their preferences in artistic style and architecture.

The Olmecs are best known today for their colossal carved stone head statues, which weigh several tons each and are believed to represent the visages of revered Olmec rulers. The carved faces in these gigantic chunks of rock are reminiscent of the Mayan masks and giant faces created by Maya sculptors, who would have been commissioned to make these works of art by rulers in the various small kingdoms that comprised the greater Maya civilization.

In the late Pre-Classical era, when the giant face at Ucanha was sculpted, the Maya were living in still small but increasingly populated agricultural villages. These rapidly expanding settlements formed the seeds of the great Maya cities that arose to dominate the region in the Classical era, which ran from 250 AD to 900 AD. 

Larger-than-life artistic creations like the giant face of Ucanha are reflections of a society that was becoming increasingly confident and ambitious. At the height of their power, the Maya exercised political, cultural, and social control over a wide swath of southern Mexico and Central America. They were able to maintain that control for several centuries, before internal decay followed by Spanish conquest brought about the demise of their kingdoms.

Recognizing the sensitive nature of their discovery, the archaeologists have now reburied the fully-restored sculpture, thereby guaranteeing its preservation. (INAH)
Exploring History Through Artifacts Left Behind: The Mayan Mask

While the Maya people are still around in significant numbers, the great cultures built by their distant ancestors exist only in the form of the artifacts, relics, and architectural masterpieces they left behind. Amazing discoveries like the giant face at Ucanha don’t reveal many details about the culture or artists that created them. But they do act as markers of the ongoing cultural evolution that was changing Maya society, taking them away from their modest agrarian roots and transforming them into a diversified, ambitious, and highly successful urban culture, one which was ultimately doomed to extinction, as all great civilizations and empires seem to be.

Of course, what the Maya experienced during the transition from the Pre-Classical to the Classical era is the same type of evolutionary transformation that has been experienced in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere across the planet over the past two centuries. When archaeologists from the far future are digging through the rubble left behind following our fina collapse, they will likely be just as curious about the long-lost civilization that created the giant carved heads at Mount Rushmore as we are about the long-lost civilization that created the giant sculpted faces on the Yucatán Peninsula.

This article (Giant Face Of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found In Mexico) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden

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Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden
Photo Credit: Annika Knarrström/Arkeologerna

Performing excavations in an area where new sewer lines are currently being installed, Swedish archaeologists have announced a remarkable and borderline miraculous find. While digging in half-frozen soil near the city of Ystad in December 2020 AD, they unearthed a large oblong-shaped runestone that featured an intricate carving of a powerful, ferocious wolf, which is known as Fenris (or Fenrir) in Norse mythology.

The discovery was shocking, in part because it was unexpected and in part because of what it represented. The rocky relic was quickly identified as one of the stones used to construct the Hunnestad Monument, a famous vertical and horizontal assemblage of image-bearing and inscribed runestones that had once stood just a few miles away, northwest of Ystad. The runestone had not been seen by anyone since the 18th century AD, when the once magnificent Hunnestad Monument was destroyed by an unappreciative and uncomprehending landowner.

Archaeologist Axel Krogh Hansen at the statue that was found during the excavation in front of a sewer line. (Image: Annika Knarrstreöm / Arkeologerna)
How A Super Famous Runestone Became Part Of A Bridge

It feels unbelievable, because it was a completely normal excavation monitoring,” exclaimed Axel Krogh Hansen, an archaeologist from Sweden’s National Historical Museums. “We found some porcelain fragments and bricks in the lower layers from the 18th century, and I joked a bit with the others that ‘now we have to be a little careful so we do not get rune or image stone,’ and then suddenly we have a carved stone right in front of us.” 

Incredibly, it seems that the newly recovered runestone was removed from the Hunnestad Monument and used as a foundation stone for a bridge constructed over a nearby river sometime in the distant past. This is the fourth stone (of the original eight) from the monument to be recovered; the other three are currently on display at the Kulturen Museum in Lund, where the new stone may soon be headed.

This is a fun, fantastic find, which we did not think would happen,” said Magnus Kallstrom, a rune expert from Sweden’s National Heritage Board. “This will give us a lot of new knowledge, in several areas, about art, religious history, and archaeology.”

The unique image stone has been missing since the 18th century. (Image: Annika Knarrström / Arkeologerna)
Reconstructing The Hunnestad Monument

Even though it was dismantled in the 18th century, the Hunnestad Monument remains one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated Viking-era monuments. Its enduring status was assured by the intricate drawings of Ole Worm, a Danish explorer and lover of antiquities who visited the Hunnestad site in 1643. 

The monument was constructed on an estate called Marsvinshome, which is located near the southern coast of Sweden, approximately seven miles (12 kilometres) from Ystad. Despite its location on Swedish territory, the estate was originally owned by Danish royalty and featured a magnificent castle (built in the 17th century AD) that still stands to this day. The Hunnestad Monument appears to have been constructed sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries AD, which means it had likely been standing for a few hundred years when it was sketched by Ole Worm.

The famous drawing of the Hunnestad Monument by Ole Worm (Ole Worm (1588-1654) / Public domain)

As revealed by Worm, the Hunnestad Monument was comprised of eight large, heavy stones in total. Five stood in a horizontal row, while three others were laid side-by-side on the ground before the standing stones. Five of the eight stones featured intricately carved images, and two of these also included runic inscriptions. 

Tragically, the monument was dismantled by a Swedish count named Erik Ruuth in the 1780s AD, who owned the Marsvinshome estate at that time. The disposition of some of the stones remains a mystery even to this day, but fortunately three of the image stones (including the two inscribed with runic symbols) were found inside Marsvinshome Castle in 1814. 

As the deciphered runic inscriptions make clear, the monument was constructed by two sons (Ásbjôrn and Tumi) of a man named Gunni Hand. Their purpose was to honour the memory of their fallen brothers, who were called Hróir and Leikfrøðr. Unfortunately, at some later date Tumi also passed away, and Ásbjôrn then inscribed and raised the eighth and final stone to memorialize him as well.

In keeping with the theme of honouring the dead, the three non-inscribed stones feature pictures of animals and animal-human hybrids. The imagery relates to important themes in Norse mythology, specifically to the process of transformation involved in completing the passage from earth to other realms, in the afterlife or elsewhere. 

It was a common practice in Viking culture to honour the dead by raising inscribed stone monuments. This, of course, is not far removed from the modern practice of erecting engraved headstones above the resting places of those who have passed on. In this instance, however, there is no evidence to suggest that any of Gunni Hand’s sons were interred at this location.

Runestone DR283 from the Hunnestad Monument depicts what is likely a member of the Varangian Guard. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Varangian Guard Runestone

The most intriguing monument image was found on the stone inscribed in honour of Hróir and Leikfrøðr, which, likely, was the first stone put in place. The image features a man standing tall and proud, wearing a long coat and pointed helmet and wielding a sharp axe. 

The garb and the weapon suggest this individual may have belonged to the Varangian Guard, an elite squad of bodyguards and soldiers who were attached to the Byzantine Army during the same timeframe in which the Hunnestad Monument was built. The Varangian Guard was comprised primarily of hired Viking mercenaries from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, who were sought after because of their reputation as fierce and indefatigable warriors.

Some Varangian Guard units were deployed exclusively to protect the reigning Byzantine emperor, while others were assigned battlefield duties during warfare. It was considered a high honour to be selected for and serve in the Varangian Guard, and the prestige was enhanced even more by the high pay associated with such a position.

Since no further details are provided in the Hunnestad inscriptions, it is impossible to ascertain the identity of the individual in the image. He may have represented one or both of Gunni Hand’s fallen sons, or perhaps he was Gunni Hand himself. Either way, the existence of the monument and its apparent connection to the Varangian Guard reveals the exalted status of the Hand family, who may very well have been descendants of Danish royal blood lines.

Runestone DR282 from the Hunnestad Monument, currently on display at Kulturen Museum, Sweden. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Final Piece Of The Puzzle?

As of now, only one of the original image stones from the Hunnestad Monument remains undiscovered (the three other stones were un-carved and un-inscribed and thus impossible to identify). Since this most recently recovered stone was salvaged for bridge construction, perhaps the missing image stone was taken for the same purpose. If so, continued excavations in the Ystad area may soon turn up another amazing find, which would allow archaeologists and historians to complete the Hunnestad Monument puzzle. 

This article (Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Archeology

Hidden In The Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses

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Hidden In The Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses
https://visionpic.net/photo/icelandic-turf-houses/

Turf houses are a distinctive type of dwelling found in Iceland with origins dating back to the 9th century AD, which are attributed to the country’s Nordic settlers. The development of turf houses in Iceland took into consideration the island’s local climate, as well as the available building materials. Turf houses continued to be widely used until the middle of the 20th century. Today, few turf houses remain in Iceland and they are regarded as an architectural heritage of the country, being nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.

A turf house in Bakkagerði. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unique Construction Used the Natural Materials of the Region

The turf houses of Iceland originate in the long-house tradition of the Norse. During the 9th century AD, the Vikings settled in Iceland, and brought their architectural traditions along with them. Over the centuries these structures were adapted to suit the Icelandic climate, and the natural resources available on the island.

In the Norse homeland of Scandinavia, long-houses were typically constructed with timber, preferably oak, which is native to the region. In Iceland, however, dwarf birch was much more readily available, and therefore was used to construct the frames of the turf houses. Additionally, the island has an abundance of lava rocks, as a result of eruptions. These were used for the construction of turf houses.

Earth covered building in Sænautasel (Saenautasel) in Iceland. (Image: Chris73/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The most distinct building material for these Icelandic structures is the turf itself. In Europe, turf was harvested in blocks from bogs, and used for construction purposes. This building technique has been in use since the Iron Age. In other parts of Northern Europe, turf was used by the poorer classes, though in Iceland both the rich and the poor exploited this natural resource. Thus walls and roofs of the Icelandic turf houses were made using this material. The houses of the rich had wooden frames on which the turf would be placed. The turf served as a natural heat insulator and provided protection for its inhabitants from the harsh northern climate. The turf needed replaced from time to time, depending on the regional frost and thaw patterns. In some places, for instance, the turf could last for as long as 20 years, whereas in others, up to 70 years.

‘Torfhaus’ Grass roofed hut in Iceland. (Image: piviso.com)
The Extreme Survival of Turf Houses

Up to the middle of the 20th century, turf houses were the norm in Iceland. A number of these turf houses still survive to this day with the oldest existing example of such a structure being the Keldur at Rangárvellir, on the southern border of the Icelandic highlands. Keldur consists of a dwelling house with a number of outbuildings. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Keldur was home to the Oddi clan, one of the powerful families in Iceland during the Free State era. Keldur has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. The current turf house there was rebuilt after the devastating earthquakes of 1896 and 1912. Keldur was acquired by the National Museum of Iceland in 1942 as part of the National Historic Buildings Collection and is opened to the public between June and August.

Earth covered turf homes in Keldur, Iceland. These were built in 1193 and are supposedly the oldest buildings in Iceland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Modern Materials Take Hold – Spotlight on Preservation

Around the middle of the 1960s the last inhabitants of Iceland’s turf houses began moving out. These traditional structures had been gradually falling out of favour among Icelanders since the beginning of the 20th century. In the country’s capital of Reykjavik, for instance, concrete became the preferred building material when the city was rebuilt after being raised by fires in 1915. Three years later, Iceland obtained its independence from Denmark. A nationalistic campaign was launched to clear the country of its traditional buildings, including turf houses, in favour of modern ones. In more recent times, however, the boost of tourism in Iceland has brought the turf houses under the spotlight and has raised questions about their preservation. In 2011, the Turf House Tradition was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, an indication of the Icelandic government’s efforts to boost the status of these traditional buildings.

This article (Hidden in the Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage of Icelandic Turf Houses) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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