Bulgarians Unearth Cache of Elaborate Ancient Goldwork At Thracian Site
A string of spectacular discoveries among burial mounds in Bulgaria is rewriting the early history of goldworking in Europe. The Thracians, who lived in what is now Bulgaria, northern Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey between 4,000 B.C. and A.D. 800, were long known as early masters of metalwork. But the recent finds, unveiled last summer, show unexpected technical expertise. The caliber and abundance of the finely wrought work suggest the region was a center for gold processing and export in ancient Europe.
In Dabene, a village 80 miles east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, a team uncovered a cache of more than 15,000 small gold artifacts, including thousands of rings so meticulously crafted that the seams are invisible to the eye. Teams working in other sites have turned up even more treasure. Among the thousands of artifacts are detailed rings, wreaths, drinking vessels, and armor of gold and silver. An investigation in August 2004 uncovered a 2,400-year-old 23.5-karat solid gold ritual burial mask weighing 672 grams, the first such found (most have only gold-leaf covering).
Valeria Fol, a professor of ancient history and culture at the Institute of Thracology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, says the site where the mask was found is intriguing. "The burial itself is incredibly interesting not only because of the golden mask but also because the corpse of the person buried was cut with an ax," Fol said.
"Only parts of the body were buried in the tomb, and they were put in their correct anatomic place. The golden mask was put in the place of the head, which is missing." Such detailed arrangement is proof, Fol said, that Thracians' burial rites, like their technological skills, were complicated. "In this aristocratic society, the king-priest was clearly very important," says Christopher Webber, the author of The Thracians: 700 B.C.–A.D. 46, who has studied the findings. The dead king may have been Seuthes III. His name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But neither does Tutankhamen. —Richard Morgan
Flores Man Denied Status As New Species
Poor Flores Man just can't rest in peace. All year a controversy has raged about whether the bones found in 2003 on the remote Indonesian island of Flores represent a new species. Australian paleoanthropologist Peter Brown insists the skeleton is a new type of human who should be called Homo floresiensis. Others say he's simply a pygmy, five feet tall, who had microcephaly, a condition that results in a small, oddly shaped skull.
That's why Robert Eckhardt, a paleoanthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, and a team have intently analyzed the 18,000-year-old bones. The group's research papers, undergoing peer review, are unequivocal. "Homo floresiensis," says Eckhardt, "is not a valid new human species."
Brown is dismissive. "Robert Eckhardt is thick as a plank," he says. Working on the joint Australian-Indonesian team that discovered Flores Man, Brown concluded that the brain shape, long arms, and chinless jaw indicate descent from an early hominid. He also believes Flores Man is, in fact, a woman who stood less than four feet tall. But Brown has lost his ability to prove his case. The Indonesian government has not renewed the Australians' permits to excavate on Flores, ending his chances to find a second skull to support the theory. Compounding the problem, the bones have been badly damaged. The pelvis is shattered and the jaw broken, injuries that Brown and Teuku Jacob, a senior Indonesian archaeologist and proponent of the pygmy theory, blame on each other. —Zach Zorich
Fed Task Force Busts Artifact-Looting Ring
One sunny Saturday afternoon in December 2001, Death Valley National Park ranger Todd Garrett spotted two men collecting Native American artifacts. When he searched their pickup, he found a small trove of ancient metates, rounded-out stones used for grinding seeds by hand. The routine encounter had giant repercussions, launching a landmark criminal investigation in which more than 10 western archaeologists teamed up with law enforcement agents to form a federal task force devoted to combating looting of archaeological sites. "In my 25 years of doing archaeology," says Tim Canaday of the Bureau of Land Management, "it's one of the most satisfying projects I've ever worked on."
Operation Indian Rocks finally closed its books this year after breaking up a gang of five construction workers who had been plundering federal lands in California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona for at least a decade. They sold some artifacts and used the rest—from rare iron projectile points to delicate yucca-fiber sandals—to decorate their homes and gardens. One thief led investigators to other culprits who took tourists from Las Vegas to various sites and taught them how to loot.
Federal judges handed out stiff prison sentences—up to 37 months—and required looters to pay $123,342 in restitution. The task force returned 11,000 plundered artifacts to tribal groups or federal agencies. Still, investigators hold no illusions that they stopped the looting. "This is just one little case," says Canaday. "In my opinion, there are bigger things going on out there. We just got lucky." —Heather Pringle