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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, September 23

Rare Roman-Era Coffin May Have Been Reused

DORSET, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that a limestone sarcophagus holding the remains of a Roman man was uncovered in a quarry in southwest England by a team from Thames Valley Archaeologist Services. The researchers said that the burial was unusual because the man’s feet had been bent backwards so that his body would fit in the coffin. “In the Roman period, burial in a sarcophagus was moderately common in Italy but very unusual in Britain, where even wooden coffins seem to have been rare,” said archaeologist Steve Ford. He thinks the sarcophagus, which would have been a prestigious item, may have been reused. An initial examination of the bones did not reveal any signs of disease. Further investigation into the cause of death are underway. For more on Roman Britain, go to "Artifact: Roman Eagle Sculpture."

Geoglyphs Mapped in Southern Peru

TORONTO, CANADA—Live Science reports that dozens of circular geoglyphs of varying sizes have been recorded in southern Peru, near the ancient town of Quilcapampa. Many of the images, dated to between A.D. 1050 and 1400, were created by removing stones from the surface of the ground. Justin Jennings of the Royal Ontario Museum and his colleagues mapped the intertwined rings with satellite imagery, aerial drones, and ground surveys, and found that they had been placed near trade routes. The researchers suggest that the circular images may reflect the continuous movement of people, goods, and food along the route linking the coast and the highland. Some of the geoglyphs are accompanied by cairns, or rock piles, as part of the design. To read about another massive site in Peru, go to "An Overlooked Inca Wonder."

Possible Iron Age Broch Discovered in Scotland

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—Shetland News reports that Michael Stratigos of the University of Aberdeen and underwater archaeologist Sally Evans think they may have found the remains of an Iron Age broch—a type of hollow-walled stone roundhouse found only in Scotland on an islet in the Loch of Strom. The site consists of a large mound with a small, circular depression in its center. Possible stone piers have also been found. “If it’s not a broch and is an Iron Age house, then it’s still significant because we don’t have many large Iron Age houses, and we should have more,” commented archaeologist Val Turner of the Shetland Amenity Trust. Stratigos said that part of the broch may have already been lost to erosion. “It is difficult to say how well preserved the site is without taking back some or all of the vegetation, something that would undoubtedly speed up the decay of the site,” he explained. To read more, go to "Hillforts of the Iron Age." 

Cambodia’s Forestry Officials Foil Suspected Looters

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—The Cambodia Daily reports that forestry official Mom Bun Lim, chief of the Banteay Srei division, seized two tenth-century sandstone sculptures after pursuing a car on rural roads for several hours. He noted that the vehicle seemed overloaded, and suspected the two occupants were carrying a load of illegal timber. He called for reinforcements to cut the driver off when he neared a populated area. The illegal cargo turned out to be two ancient sandstone sculptures that may have been stolen from the remote site of the Koh Ker temple in Preah Vihear province, which is located about 75 miles away, since the region around the Angkor Archaeological Park is well guarded. Anthropologist Ang Choulean of the Royal University of Fine Arts said that antiquities thefts were “a pretty frequent occurrence in the 1990s, but it’s been years since we’ve heard talk of thieves.” To read more, go to "The Battle Over Preah Vihear."

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Thursday, September 22

Computer Model Simulates Ancient Climate Change, Migration

MANOA, HAWAII—Live Science reports that scientists led by Axel Timmermann of the University of Hawaii at Manoa have developed a new computer simulation, spanning a period of 125,000 years, of how rainfall, temperature, sea levels, glacial ice, vegetation, carbon dioxide levels, and the migration patterns of modern humans might have been affected by Milankovitch cycles, or wobbles in the planet’s orbit and tilt that occur every 21,000 years. The model suggests that modern humans may have traveled between northeastern Africa and other parts of the world through periodic “habitable green corridors” in the Sahara and Arabian deserts. Timmermann says these results align with archaeological and fossil data from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. “If the climate had been constant over the past 125,000 years, we would have evolved in a very different way,” he said. A future version of the simulation will add Neanderthals, interbreeding, cultural exchange, and competition for food into the mix. For more on modern human origins, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Genetic Study Links Indigenous Australians to First Arrivals

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—The Guardian reports that evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen conducted a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, and found that their ancestors can be traced back 50,000 years, to the first arrivals on the continent. “They are probably the oldest group in the world that you can link to one particular place,” he said. The study also suggests that about four percent of the Indigenous Australian genome came from an unknown human relative. Willerslev added that Indigenous populations in Australia remained almost totally isolated until about 4,000 years ago, about the same time that the languages now spoken by these populations began to spread. “You see a movement of people spreading across the continent and leaving signatures across the continent,” he said. “That is the time that this new language has spread.” For more on the prehistory of Australia, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Scientists Successfully Image Ancient, Charred Bible

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY—Live Science reports that a team from the University of Kentucky has “virtually unwrapped” the En-Gedi scroll using X-ray-based micro-computed tomography scans. The scroll was discovered in the Holy Ark at the synagogue at En-Gedi, which was destroyed by fire around A.D. 600. The team, led by computer scientist Brent Seales, first identified each of the five layers of parchment in the scroll. Then they created a virtual geometric mesh for each of the layers to help make the text, written with an ink containing metal, more visible. In the last step, the researchers digitally flattened the scroll and merged the layers into one, 2-D image. The text, placed in two columns, consists of 35 lines of Hebrew. Biblical scholars now know that the En-Gedi scroll contains the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, the third of the five books in the Jewish Torah. And the text is identical to the text of the Book of Leviticus in medieval Hebrew Bibles. “This is quite amazing for us,” said Emanuel Tov, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “That in 2,000 years, this text has not changed.” To read about a similar project, go to "The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum."

Wednesday, September 21

Drone Photos Reveal Ancient Settlement

LE PIANELLE, ITALY—Live Science reports that airborne drones have been used to discover traces of a possible Samnite community in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, where rugged terrain has prevented scientists from taking conventional aerial photographs. Tesse Stek of Leiden University and his colleagues wanted to look for villages, farms, villas, and cemeteries that may have been connected to two ancient temples uncovered by construction projects in the region. So, they programed aerial drones to take photographs in areas where they had found artifacts on the ground. Strong winds in a narrow valley caused the loss of one drone, but other flights revealed several archaeological complexes surrounding the once-mysterious temples. “We have a very complete overview of the internal organization of the settlement, including its disposition along the road, storage spaces, domestic areas, and so on,” Stek said. The villages were denser and better organized than had been anticipated, he added. For more on the Samnites, go to "Pompeii Before the Romans."

Large Hominin Teeth Found in Hobbits’ Cave

NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA—According to a report in Nature, archaeologist Thomas Sutikna and geochronologist Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong say that two teeth from modern humans have been found in the Indonesian cave where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003. The teeth have been dated to 46,000 years ago, making them slightly younger than the estimated date for the extinction of the hobbits some 50,000 years ago. The upper premolar and lower molar are larger than the teeth of H. floresiensis, but some scholars are not convinced that they belonged to a modern human. Other evidence for the presence of modern humans in the cave after the hobbits disappeared includes fireplaces and freshwater mollusk shells. “What we don’t yet know is whether there was at least a short overlap in the populations, thus raising the question once again of the possible role of modern humans in the extinction of floresiensis,” commented paleoanthroplogist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. To read about another discovery in Indonesia, go to "The First Artists."

Ancient Cat DNA Examined for Clues to Domestication

PARIS, FRANCE—Nature reports that evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl of the Institute Jacques Monod and her colleagues Claudio Ottoni and Thierry Grange investigated the origins of domesticated cats by sequencing mitochondrial DNA obtained from more than 200 sets of cat remains recovered from more than 30 archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The cats lived between about 15,000 years ago and the eighteenth century A.D. The researchers found that wild cats from the Middle East are likely to have traveled with early farmers into the eastern Mediterranean. The feline hunters may have been drawn to the rodents attracted to new grain stockpiles. A mitochondrial lineage found in later Egyptian cat mummies was also found in the remains of cats in Eurasia and Africa, and in cat remains from a Viking site in northern Germany. Geigl suggests that seafaring peoples probably kept cats on their ships to keep rodents at bay as well. The team also found evidence indicating that the tabby coat variation first appeared in the medieval period. For more, go to "Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt."

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