shells probably carved by Neanderthals discovered in the former home of Princess Diana | Smart News

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The late Princess of Wales lived in Althorp during her teenage years.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since the early 16th century, the vast Althorp estate in England has been the seat of the Spencer family, an influential line of dazzling duchesses; passionate bibliophiles; and, perhaps most famous, the late Princess Diana, who moved to Althorp as a young teenager and lived there until her marriage to Prince Charles. However, reports Simon from Brussels for the Telegraph, an unexpected find suggests that the Northamptonshire estate was occupied by Neanderthals long before it became the seat of a fascinating aristocratic family.

Archaeologists sifting through a rubbish heap at Althorp recently uncovered pieces of worked seashells that they believed to date from the Middle Ages. The team was therefore surprised when carbon dating revealed that the shells were in fact at least 40,000 years old, placing the relics in the long timeline of the Neanderthals’ presence in Britain. According to the London Natural History Museum, the extinct human species inhabited the island 400,000 years ago, repeatedly withdrawing from Britain when the climate turned inhospitable and returning when conditions were more favorable.

“We don’t think the seashells would have been the remains of a prehistoric meal, as Althorp was even further from the sea than today,” said Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute of Digital Archeology ( IDA), which is proceeding with the excavation, told the Telegraph. Instead, he says, the incised shells “could have been used for decoration or as mother-of-pearl spurs for jewelry.”

These artefacts are perhaps the latest of many archaeological finds discrediting the “wicked and brutal” reputation once attributed to Neanderthals, as Merrit Kennedy wrote for NPR in 2018. Researchers have already found other examples of the making of it. Neanderthal ornaments, including an eagle’s talon which was probably worn as jewelry. Neanderthals may also have created rock art, intentionally buried their dead, and cared for their sick.

Archaeologists have not sought to find traces of a prehistoric species in Althorp. Charles Spencer, Diana’s younger brother and the current Earl of Spencer, initially recruited IDA to search for the remains of a medieval village called Olletorp, which was abandoned in the 14th century after being ravaged by the bubonic plague. (Spencer recounted his nascent interest in archeology in an essay for the Telegraph last month.) Olletorp is mentioned in the Domesday Book, a large land survey commissioned by William I in 1085, and is believed to have been “about 1,000 meters west of Althorp House,” the house seigniorial of the property, according to the Telegraph.

The seashells “could have been used for decoration or as mother-of-pearl spurs for jewelry”.

IDA archaeologists have spent the last year digging boreholes, mapping the area using ground-penetrating radar and collecting cores. In addition to the ancient pieces of seashells, the team unearthed fragments of carved wood and flint dating from the Stone Age—An indication that toolmaking took place at the excavation site. At Twitter, the organization added that it had discovered an “intriguing network of stone walls and earthworks”.

Michel tells the Telegraph that he “still hopes[s] find Olletorp for Charles. But ancient archaeological findings suggest the site has a much larger history than the team anticipated. About 40,000 years ago, modern humans began arriving in Britain, opening up the possibility that further excavations at Althorp will uncover evidence of a pivotal turning point in the region’s history.

“Our geophysical surveys of the site reveal many areas of interest that merit further exploration,” says Michel. “Althorp could very well tell the whole story of the colonization of Britain.”



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