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Neanderthal art, a thousand-year-old sanctuary and theater of Nero: archaeological treasures from last year

The year 2023 has passed, closing with it an impressive string of archaeological excavations and scientific discoveries.

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Neanderthal art, a thousand-year-old sanctuary and theater of Nero: archaeological treasures from last year

The year 2023 has passed, closing with it an impressive string of archaeological excavations and scientific discoveries. And what a vintage! Prestigious operations are still going well, as once again illustrated by the finds from Egypt and Pompeii or, in France, the remarkable excavations carried out in the bowels of the basilica of Saint-Denis. The release of the fifth film in the Indiana Jones saga was also an opportunity to present to the general public a fantasy version of the Antikythera machine, but also to recall the difference between pillage and archeology, as well as the much less glamorous reality of job.

But what can we learn from all these sensational news stories, thunderous declarations and other operations from last year? Le Figaro, in turn, delved into the archives of recent months and selected five of the most remarkable discoveries of 2023.

There is something new in one of the first sanctuaries in history. An animal relief was unearthed this summer at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. The oldest known monumental temple, this site built from the end of the 10th millennium BC is renowned for its impressive erected steles and its reliefs, both animal and symbolic. Or a set with a still poorly understood, mysterious character, where each discovery brings new grist for specialists. Researchers from the German Archaeological Institute therefore did not hide their joy by announcing that they had unearthed the sculpture of a small wild boar at the foot of a new stele, on a cornice itself decorated with a snake, a crescent moon and human heads. This formerly polychrome relief could be dated to the 9th millennium BC. AD

No less extraordinary is the almost concomitant discovery of a colossal anthropomorphic statue on the neighboring site of Karahan Tepe, excavated by the University of Istanbul. 2.3 meters high, it represents a bearded character, with an erect penis in his hands. Should we see in this singular figure - found broken - a Neolithic god of fertility, or some other “sacred monster” from the end of the Stone Age? The mystery remains to be solved.

The patient work of rehabilitating the Neanderthals continues. Freed from the clichés that reduced him to a rustic hominid, Neanderthal Man appears today as an equal to Homo sapiens, whether in his cognitive abilities, his technical mastery, his practice of burial or even more. recently discovered, in its aesthetic sensitivity. As proof, the rock engravings dated 57,000 years ago just studied: yes, definitely, Neanderthal was also an artist.

Published last summer, an international study demonstrated that the engravings from the Roche-Cotard cave, in Touraine, preceded those left by Homo sapiens in the Chauvet cave by almost 20,000 years - and would therefore be the oldest productions artistic Neanderthals in Europe, even in the world. Evil tongues will say that these parietal traces, which have long gone unnoticed, do not have the charm of the polychrome paintings of the most beautiful decorated caves. But millennia separate these undulating traces, these curved lines and these furrows from the wild animals and game that the general public admires so much.

Also read: Treasures found in a boat stranded for two centuries in the Mediterranean

The large pile-dwelling sites in the Alps have concerns. These lake villages from the 4th millennium BC, which are the pride of the Swiss valleys, are ultimately not the oldest settlement centers of this type on the European continent. The analyzes carried out in Bern are relentless: houses on stilts discovered in Albania have been able to be fairly accurately dated from 6000 to 5800 BC. That is, almost two millennia before the oldest Alpine pile buildings. And 4000 years before the great Egyptian pyramids.

Well-preserved remains of piles made it possible to carry out carbon-14 examinations. There is no shortage of material. More than a hundred of these fragile fragments were discovered off the coast of the Lin Peninsula, along the Albanian part of Lake Ohird, straddling the border with North Macedonia. A few hundred inhabitants could have occupied this undoubtedly fortified site which continues to be the subject of underwater prospecting.

Nero's theater finally resurfaces in Rome, after two millennia. Mentioned by several Roman historians astonished by the indecent luxury of the building, this public monument bristling with columns plated with gold leaf and sumptuous marble ornaments rested five meters under the courtyard of the Palazzo della Rovere, a very chic Renaissance residence located in a stone's throw from Saint-Pierre Square.

Discreetly excavated since 2020, the site was only revealed to the public in August 2023, for security reasons. The Italian archaeologists were finally able to present the fruit of their work, lifting the veil on the semi-circular stands, the collapsed columns, the painted walls and the polychrome brick facings - made of fishing nets - exhumed from the theater. A building that lives up to the sulphurous reputation of its sponsor. As for the Palazzo della Rovere, it continues its transformation into a hotel. Luxury, obviously.

Studying flints is very convenient given the good conservation of the rocks over a long time. Studying ancient woods, on the other hand, is a monstrous task. This organic material does not share the patience of stone. Putrescible, it turns to dust in a matter of centuries and leaves behind it, most of the time, only imprints like those of postholes. The conservation of wood is, however, possible under certain conditions, particularly when it is submerged. This was the case near the Kalambo River Falls in Zambia. A wooden structure, made of two interlocking logs, has been dated to 476,000 years ago. Or before the appearance of modern man.

In addition to this imposing beam, some wooden tools were also exhumed on the site by archaeologists. The whole would indicate that a very old platform had been built in this place, perhaps a passage or a dwelling. The chronology, however, is dizzying, with the oldest wooden constructions known to date having been dated “only” 9,000 years ago. Will future excavations along the Kalambo River yield new pieces from this temple? The researchers are knocking on wood.

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