Category Archives: Ancient Mediterranean

Ancient Minoan mtDNA

Early Minoan jar
(CC by Wolfgang Sauber)
An ancient Minoan cave ossuary from Ayios Charalambos, Lasithi Plateau (around Mt. Ditke, Eastern Crete), dated to c. 2400-1700 BCE, has produced 37 valid mtDNA sequences (HVS-I).
Jeffrey R. Hughey et al., A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete. Nature Communications 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1038/ncomms2871]


The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years before present. Since Sir Arthur Evans exposed the Minoan civic centre of Knossos, archaeologists have speculated on the origin of the founders of the civilization. Evans proposed a North African origin; Cycladic, Balkan, Anatolian and Middle Eastern origins have also been proposed. Here we address the question of the origin of the Minoans by analysing mitochondrial DNA from Minoan osseous remains from a cave ossuary in the Lassithi plateau of Crete dated 4,400–3,700 years before present. Shared haplotypes, principal component and pairwise distance analyses refute the Evans North African hypothesis. Minoans show the strongest relationships with Neolithic and modern European populations and with the modern inhabitants of the Lassithi plateau. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis of an autochthonous development of the Minoan civilization by the descendants of the Neolithic settlers of the island.

From the paper (emphasis mine):
The majority of Minoans were classified in haplogroups H (43.2%), T (18.9%), K (16.2%) and I (8.1%). Haplogroups U5A, W, J2, U, X and J were each identified in a single individual

Figure 2: Minoan mtDNA haplotypes in extant and ancient populations.
(a) Minoan mtDNA HVS-1 haplotypes shared with the modern or ancient populations. (b) Frequency distribution of the 15 shared Minoan haplotypes among the various modern and ancient population groups.

I find very interesting that of the six non-singleton shared HVS-I sequences, four match those of Central European Neolithic (ht 5, 11, 13 and 14, plus singleton ht 4). The total percentage of coincidences is smaller than with Southern Neolithic but this grouping only has two matches with Minoan common haplotypes (ht 11 and 14, plus singleton ht 4), not any striking match.
Among modern populations the best fits seem to be the Balcans, Turkey and Middle East, both with five non-singleton matches out of six possible ones (ht 20 is only found in Turkey, click to expand if you don’t see it, while ht 8 is found in the Balcans and the Middle East). 
So I would conclude that the Minoan sample fits well with a mix of Anatolian and Balcanic (or less likely Near Eastern) origin, after due founder effect, fitting also reasonably well with Danubian Neolithic and therefore with their likely (partial?) origins at the Balcanic Painted Ware Neolithic.
The greater pseudo-affinity with other populations, based only on overall frequency, seems to be inflated by four haplotypes only: ht 14 (the omnipresent CRS), ht 11 (apparently a common K variant), ht 4 (a relatively common T variant but only present in a single Minoan individual) and ht 12 (H5, again present only in an isolated case in the Minoan sample).
So let’s please be careful and try not to mix quantity (frequency) with quality (relevant haplotype matches). 
The paper also includes a principal component analysis with a more detailed array of populations:

One of the most intriguing facts here is the near-identity between Minoan and modern Lasithi Plateau populations. It would seem logical but Wikipedia describes an instance of ethnic cleansing and later repopulation by the Venetians (emphasis mine):

The fertile soil of the plateau, due to alluvial run-off from melting snow, has attracted inhabitants since Neolithic times (6000 BC). Minoans and Dorians followed and the plateau has been continuously inhabited since then, except a period that started in 1293 and lasted for over two centuries during the Venetian occupation of Crete. During that time and due to frequent rebellions and strong resistance, villages were demolished, cultivation prohibited, and natives were forced to leave and forbidden to return under a penalty of death. A Venetian manuscript of the thirteenth century describes the troublesome plateau of Lasithi as spina nel cuore (di Venezia) – a thorn in the heart of Venice. Later, in the early 15th century, Venetian rulers allowed refugees from the Greek mainland (eastern Peloponnese) to settle in the plain and cultivate the land again.

Is this totally wrong? A brutal error? Erudite vandalism? I cannot say (and would appreciate knowledgeable feedback).
A clear issue is that the current inhabitants of the plateau have a distinctive genetic signature in their Y-DNA, quite different from that of other Cretans, with much higher frequencies of R1b and R1a and much much lower frequencies of the most common Cretan lineage: J2a1. However they also almost lack the main mainland Greek haplogroup E1b, what suggests that the recolonization from Peloponnese story is not correct either. 
Interestingly Cretan R1b, so important in Lasithi Plateau (almost 50%), is also largely derived from Western Europe (although the other half could be Balcanic), maybe via Italy, and cannot be ancestral to it (almost all the Western variant belongs to a derived subclade common in Italy, Central Europe and France: U152).
What is going on here then? I must admit that I do not really know.
Other very close populations in the PCA graph are Serbians (green star) and Bronze Age Sardinians (green rhombus). Take it as you wish. Bronze Age Sardinians are also top in the pairwise comparison table (the closest modern populations being Portuguese, Germans and Corsicans, also Neolithic Scandinavians). However these statistical analyses (both the PCA and the pairwise table) may well hide flaws (like the above mentioned confusion between quantity and quality), so I’d take them with the proverbial pinch of salt, as the confidence of the findings depends on the details of the methodology, not necessarily the best ones.
In any case, the general conclusions of the paper do not seem to be wrong: the Egyptian origin hypothesis is totally discarded and a Neolithic origin seems much more likely. However so many questions remain open…


Constructors invade major archaeological site in Istanbul with heavy machinery

Archaeologists working in one of the most important archaeological sites of Europe, Yenikapı
(Istanbul, Turkey), an emergency dig that has been extended for years
as it became obvious that it is a treasure of archaeological evidence
spanning many ages, saw their work interrupted and damaged by an
impromptu invasion of heavy machinery. The site is meant to be one of
the major nodes in the ambitious Marmaray subway project but is under
archaeological research since 2004. 

Archaeologists working at the site have
released a written statement to attract public attention to the
incident. “An excavation has been carried out in Yenikapı as part of the
Marmaray Subway Project for eight years as ordered by the Fourth
Regional Board of Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets. The
importance of the contributions that this excavation has made to the
cultural life of İstanbul is already well known by the public. This
excavation has been defined by world authorities as one of the most
important excavations made during the century. The ongoing excavation
activities do not block the construction of the Marmaray project because
the work is being conducting at a place that is planned to be a parking
lot. This excavation is the site of the Port of Theodosius, which dates
back to the fourth century. The site is also in a residential area
dating back to the Neolithic Age. On May 11, 2013, bulldozers went onto
the site and started to destroy these historically important remnants.
This is a crime under the current Constitution’s Article 63 concerning
the conservation of historical, cultural and natural wealth, and this is
against international agreements signed by Turkey,” they said.

Source: Today’s Zaman.

Iberian script of Iruña-Veleia

A new study of the Iberian script findings withing the (partly disputed but most likely very real) ostraka graffiti at Iruña-Veleia (Basque-Roman city of Antiquity on which I have written extensively in the past) is freely available online.
Antonio Arnaiz-Villena & Diego Rey, Iberian-Tartessian scripts/graffiti in Iruna-Veleia (Basque Country, North Spain): findings in both Iberia and Canary Islands-Africa. International Journal of Modern Anthropology 2012. Freely accessibleLINK


760 officially recognized scripts on ceramics from Iruña-Veleia excavated by the archaeology firm Lurmen S.L. (approximately between years 2002-2008)have been analyzed. A number of these ceramics contains scripts which may be assimilated to Iberian/Tartessian writings. This number may be underestimated since more studies need to be done in already available and new found ceramics. This is the second time that Iberian writing is found by us in an unexpected location together with the Iberian-Guanche inscriptions of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura (Canary Islands). On the other hand, naviform scripting, usually associated to Iberian rock or stone engraving may have also been found in Veleia. Strict separation, other than in time and space stratification, between Iberian and (South) Tartessian culture and script is doubted.

Source: Ama Ata[es].

Videos of the Iruña-Veleia Congress (I)

As you may recall, the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia took place in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Basque Country) earlier this month. The complete written reports can be found at Euskararen Jatorria.
These videos have been published at Iputztar (YouTube user). Some have already been posted in this blog (so I will only include a link) and we can expect that more will be published in the near future (it seems to me that the list is very much incomplete as of now). Most are in Spanish language, with some Basque also, but at least one is in English.
Full playlist of the Congress’ videos in sequence (for people with plenty of time).
00 – Sarrera (Introduction) → YouTube link.
01 – Antonio Rodríguez Colmenero (archaeologist, epigraphist) → YouTube link[es], in this blog.
02 – Edward C. Harris (archaeologist) → YouTube link[en], in this blog.
03 – Eliseo Gil (archaeologist, former director of Iruña-Veleia digs, accused of falsification by the most surreal linguists’ gang ever, accusations never proven). In Spanish:

04 – Xabier Rentería synthesizes the reports of some of those who claim that the graffiti are false (Julio Núñez, archaeologist, and Joaquín Gorrochategui, linguist), who rejected to go to the congress. In Basque:


05 – Idoia Filloy (archaeologist, member of the Iruña-Veleia team, also accused). In Spanish:

06 – Francisco Javier Santos Arévalo (archaeometrist, physicist) on how to date the shards reliably. In Spanish:
07 -Joaquín Baxarias Tibau (archaeologist) on the very revealing bone artifacts of Iruña-Veleia. In Spanish:

The interventions of linguists Luis Silgo Gauche and Antonio Arnaiz Villena are still not available in video. 
Special thanks to Ostraka Euskalduna[eu] for keeping me updated on the matter.
See label Iruña-Veleia for background in (mostly) English.

Rodríguez Colmenero on the Iruña-Veleia graffiti (video in Spanish)

The videos of the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia are being gradually released. I recently shared here the conference by Edward C. Harris, and now is time for Antonio Rodríguez Colmenero (renowned Galician archaeologist, historian and epigraphist). Follows video: 45 mins in Spanish language (good quality):

He discusses in some depth, often by contrasting with other Roman era sites, the alphabet, the Christian inscriptions, the errors being product of children education (most of the findings appear to come from a school), the already ongoing Latin→Romance evolution and often also only attributable to mischievous or ignorant misreadings by modern people with limited knowledge but a big mouth (i.e. not errors but in interpretation).
Source: En el Ángulo Oscuro[es].

Wanted: volunteer archaeologists to dig Europe’s oldest civilization

Tell Yunatsite in Southern Bulgaria was an important settlement of the Chalcolithic, in the context of an advanced culture that was older than Egypt or Troy. The place was settled in the seventh millennium (Neolithic) and destroyed by invaders at the end of the fifth millennium (Chalcolithic, Indoeuropean invasions), briefly resettled only to be evicted once again and left empty for a whole millennium. Later it was reoccupied in the late Bronze Age (Thracians) and continuously inhabited until the Middle Ages (when it may have been evacuated in the context of Slavic invasions). 
In brief: a whole slice of European late prehistory (and a bit of history also). In the words of the researchers:

In the seventh millenium BC
the Balkan Peninsula was a gate through which farming, animal husbandry and
generally Neolithisation spread to Europe from Anatolia and the Near East. App.
1000 years later in the very beginning of the fifth millennium BC prehistoric
population in Central and Eastern Balkans turned known metal-processing technologies
into an industry for the first time in human history (The World oldest copper
mines are found near Rudna glava, Serbia and Mechi kladenets/Ai bunar near
Stara Zagora, Bulgaria). Archaeological evidence shows that in the fifth millennium
BC these prehistoric cultures enjoyed a constant raise of population and wealth
meanwhile experiencing social stratification due the intensive trade with metal
products, salt and other goods with the rest of prehistoric Europe and Asia. These
Balkan Copper age cultures had all characteristics of the first civilizations including:
the very first urban settlements in Europe (Tell Yunatsite, Durankulak and Provadia
in Bulgaria), dense network of settlements, “industrial” proportions of
production of goods, esp. metal products and salt, developed trade, distinguished
social and professional stratification, pictograms and characters interpreted by
some scholars as the World’oldest script (Gradeshnitsa tablet for instance dates
back to the sixth or early fifth millennium BC) as well as precious artifacts made of gold,
pottery, bone and stone (the World oldest gold treasure found in the Varna
Copper age necropolis
). This very first civilization in Europe was Pre-Indo-European
and emerged for not more a millennium covering large parts of the Balkans, NW
Anatolia and Eastern Europe. It collapsed around the end of the fifth millennium
under the pressure of both drastic climatic changes and invasion of Early Indo-Europeans.
The period of study of this very first civilization in Europe has been quite
short – about 40 years have passed, since the excavation of the Varna Copper age
necropolis brought to light the first certain evidences about its existence. Nowadays scholars
from all over the World are still discovering new facts and adding new data
about the “lost” first civilization in Europe.

They are looking for volunteers with an interest in archaeology and decent health for the campaign of summer 2013. Participation provides credits for university students.
More information on the relevant Prehistory and the volunteer program at Balcan Heritage.

Iruña-Veleia congress: papers and synthesis

The linguistic-cultural association Euskararen Jatorria (The Origin of the Basque Language) has published the reports presented for the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia that took place in late November in Vitoria-Gasteiz. 
All papers have trilingual (Basque, English, Spanish) introductory sections and then each one is in the language chosen by the author. They can all be found HERE.
Among them there is a “conclusions” synthesis (PDF) whose headlines I synthesize here:
  • The dig [by Gil, Filloy et al.] was performed correctly
  • Chain of evidence has been broken – as the judge has not controlled it
  • Iconography and most graffiti are coherent
  • Controlled local digs were not performed to contrast with the findings
  • The archaeometrical datings now being performed in Madrid should have been the first thing to do
  • Graffiti on bone are easy to date [but was not done either]
  • It is only logical that Iberian signs are found among the rest
  • So far 19 reports have declared the graffiti genuine
  • The Advisory Commission did not do anything of what they should have done
Paraphrasing the late linguist Gorka Knörr, the paper concludes that 
If Iruña-Veleia would be a house, datings would be the foundations, controlled digs the first floor, auditions the first floor, history the second, philology the third… Therefore when the Advisory Commission “began building the house by the ceiling” and that is why we are now just as the beginning, because the datings required by Eliseo Gil were never performed.
As you may already know, Iruña-Veleia is a Vasco-Roman city of Antiquity not far from Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 2006 a large number of inscribed graffiti on pottery shards (ostrakas) was found, most of them in ancient Basque and Vulgar Latin. 
The finding had the potential of rewriting linguistic and historical understanding of Basque language and also Romances, what apparently scared to death some popes of linguistics led by Gorrochategui and Lakarra, who, by means of smearing, abuse of power and cronyism, managed to get the archaeologists in charge (Gil, Filloy and their company Lurmen) out and put instead the only archaeologist who was ready to play their game Luis Núñez, whose management of the site has consisted essentially into digging wildly with a caterpillar until popular clamor stopped his misgivings (since then he seems to do nothing at, what is surely good considering what he did when he dared to).
Gil and Filloy have been charged with “falsification” and in this trial is where the hopes of truth being revealed stand now. After many years, a sample of the ostrakas have been sent to researchers in Madrid to perform archeometry tests.

See also: category Iruña-Veleia for further details.