World news in brief: finds from Japan, Iraq, and Egypt

A round-up of some of the latest archaeological news from across the globe.

Burial goods in Japan

Excavations at the 4th-century Tomio Maruyama burial mound, near Nara in Japan, have discovered two unique examples of metalwork from the Kofun period (AD 300-710): a 267cm-long iron sword and a shield-shaped copper mirror. The sword, which has an unusual serpentine shape, is the largest example of an iron sword known in Japan, as well as the oldest dako sword, while the copper mirror is also the largest known example of its kind, weighing more than 5kg. The size of the objects suggests that they were never intended for use in battle, but rather as a form of protection in death. These remarkable artefacts, buried in a tomb that most likely belonged to an important member of the nobility, reveal previously unknown levels of craftsmanship and technology in this period.

Ancient mesopotamian tavern

Image: Lagash Archaeology Project

Archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pisa, working in the ancient city of Lagash in southern Iraq, have uncovered an almost 5,000-year-old tavern. Lagash was one of the largest cities in southern Mesopotamia, occupied c.4,900-3,600 years ago, and is known to have been an important political, industrial, and religious centre, but until now not much evidence has been uncovered of the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people there. The recently discovered tavern, dating to c.2,700 BC, consisted of an open-air public eating area and a kitchen, with an oven, benches, a type of clay refrigerator called a zeer, and storage containers and bowls still holding the remains of food. The latest season of excavations also uncovered an area of ceramic production with several kilns, as well as a domestic building with a toilet and kitchen.

Egyptian slave brands

Research into ancient Egyptian branding irons previously thought to have been used to mark cattle has suggested that they may have been used to brand enslaved people instead. The study, carried out by Dr Ella Karev at the University of Chicago and recently published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (, looked at ancient Egyptian written sources, paintings, and a collection of branding irons from the 19th-25th Dynasties to explore this possibility. Textual references to the practice of ‘marking’ slaves have previously been assumed to refer to tattooing, but the study found that tattooing in ancient Egypt was usually carried out for religious and decorative purposes, and was largely reserved for women. Karev therefore proposes that these texts may in fact refer to branding, which was commonly used as a way of marking ownership of animals. This interpretation is supported by the existence of a number of known branding irons that appear to be too small for use on cattle, and are almost identical in size to examples used during the transatlantic slave trade many centuries later.

TEXT: Amy Brunskill