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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, April 22

Chili Peppers First Cultivated in Central Mexico

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—Chili peppers were first domesticated in central-east Mexico, according to plant scientist Paul Gepts of the University of California, Davis, who led a study of genetic, archaeological, linguistic, and archaeological evidence. Traces of the easily-transported chili pepper, or Capiscum annum, has been found in Romero Cave in eastern Mexico, and from Coxcatlán Cave, located further south. These two samples are between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. “By tracing back the ancestry of any domesticated plant, we can better understand the genetic evolution of that species and the origin of agriculture—a major step in human evolution in different regions of the world,” Gepts told Live Science.

Sediment Cores Reveal Lead Levels in Rome’s Water

LYON, FRANCE—Sediment cores taken from ancient Rome’s harbor basin at Portus and a canal that connected the port to the Tiber River suggest that lead levels in the city’s water supply varied over time from 14 to 105 times higher than the levels found in natural spring water. The different isotopes of lead in the sediments showed that some of it had occurred naturally in the river water, and some of it had come from lead that was imported and used in the city’s system of piping. Yet Francis Albarède of Claude Bernard University thinks that the amount of contamination was insufficient to cause problems in Roman society. “It’s marginal. You would start being worried about drinking that water all your life. Even though they probably did not get degenerate, as some people say, or even get more violent, lead pollution might have been something to be concerned about,” he told The Guardian

Robotic Vehicle Revisits Wrecks in Gulf of Mexico

GALVESTON, TEXAS—A robotic vehicle is transmitting images of three early nineteenth-century shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico to scientists at Texas A&M University. The largest of the three ships was armed with cannon and may have been a privateer that had taken control of the other two vessels. The presence of a chronometer on one of the wrecks suggests that no one escaped the sinking vessel alive, since sailors leaving the ship would have taken the valuable piece of equipment with them. The researchers have also spotted a telescope. “Right here, with the glass lenses broken out of it, probably because of pressure when the ship sank,” Steve Gittings of National Marine Sanctuaries explained to KHOU. “It’s hard to say what happened. All three ships are certainly within visual sight of one another. It’s entirely likely that they all could’ve gone down in the same storm,” added marine archaeologist Kim Faulk. To read more about the project, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature article "All Hands on Deck."

Two Ancient Egyptian Tombs Found at Oxyrhynchus

MINYA, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that two tombs dating to the 26th Dynasty have been unearthed in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus by a Spanish-Egyptian team of archaeologists. The first tomb, which contained a bronze inkwell and two small bamboo pens, belonged to a scribe whose mummy is well preserved. Coins and mummified fish were also recovered. Oxyrhynchus, Greek for “sharp-nosed fish,” is known for the papyrus texts dating from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 700 that were first discovered there in the late nineteenth century.

More Headlines
Monday, April 21

New Thoughts on Animal Domestication

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Herders dating back to the Neolithic period did not isolate their domesticated charges from wild animals, according to Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis, Keith Dobney of the University of Aberdeen, Tim Denham of the Australian National University, and José Capriles of the Universidad de Tarapacá. They reviewed recent research on the domestication of large herbivores in different places and at different times. “Our findings show little control of breeding, particularly of domestic females, and indicate long-term gene flow, or interbreeding, between managed and wild animal populations,” Marshall told Science Daily. Such contact with wild animals may have been accidental or intentional, in order to produce stronger, faster animals better suited to the environment. “The boundaries between wild and domesticated animals were much more blurred for much longer than we had realized,” she added. 

Colonial Road Construction Investigated in Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA—When the capital of colonial Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699, Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare through the town, was designed to reflect the power and order of the British crown. The plan required, however, the long, straight street be constructed over ravines and gullies that had to be filled in and drained. “The most heroic work was probably done early in the century. But this was a very long campaign that started off with public projects and ended with private efforts,” Edward Chappell, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s department of architectural and archaeological research, told The Daily Press

War of 1812 Site Excavated in Baltimore

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—The Baltimore Sun reports that an excavation in Patterson Park by the nonprofit group Baltimore Heritage has uncovered a wall that may have been part of Jacob Laudenslager’s butcher shop during the War of 1812. The butcher shop was located close to the site of the Patterson Park Pagoda, built on a strategic hill with a view of the city. Thousands of Maryland militiamen camped on the property, and built earthworks that helped repel the British in the Battle of Baltimore. Volunteers have helped the recovery of bricks, mortar, glass, nails, pottery, and a gunflint. 

England’s Wark Castle Was Larger Than Thought

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—Excavations have shown that Wark Castle, captured by the Scottish King James IV in 1513, one month before the Battle of Flodden, was twice as large as had been thought. “This helps us to understand why the castle was considered to be so important,” Chris Burgess, Flodden 1513 archaeology manager, told The Journal. After his victory at Flodden, the English King Henry VIII turned the castle, which is located on England’s side of the boundary between the two countries, into an artillery fortification and used it to prevent the Scots from crossing the River Tweed.   

Friday, April 18

Sections of the Great Wall of China Unearthed

BEIJING, CHINA—The Global Post reports that three sections of the Great Wall thought to have been constructed during the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. to 206 B.C.) have been discovered in northwest China. The stone wall had been placed in a valley of the Yellow River in order to prevent foreign invaders from crossing the river when it was frozen.  

Physical Impact of the Trail of Tears and the Civil War Analyzed

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—Environmental stressors brought on by the Trail of Tears and the Civil War led to significant changes in the shape of skulls of members of the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee people, according to researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. They analyzed data collected in the late nineteenth century by anthropologist Franz Boas, who measured the length and breadth of skulls from many Native American tribes. “When times are tough, people have less access to adequate nutrition and are at greater risk of disease. This study demonstrates the impact that those difficult times had on the physical growth of the Cherokee people,” Ann Ross of North Carolina State told Phys.org

Famous Civil War Gunboat May Have Been Found

GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA—The remains of the Planter, a ship commandeered in Charleston Harbor by a 23-year-old enslaved man named Robert Smalls, may have been found buried in ten feet of silt with scanning sonar and a magnetometer. Smalls and other African-American crewmembers took control of the transport steamer, picked up Smalls’ wife and children, and headed to the Union blockade in 1862. He surrendered the vessel, which was transformed into a Union gunboat with Smalls as its captain. The Planter eventually sank off Cape Romain in 1876. “We have probed down. We know there’s wood there and we know there’s metal there, but we don’t know absolutely whether it is or is not the Planter,” Gordon Watts of Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc. told Greenville Online. Smalls went on to serve five terms in Congress. The site will be monitored and protected. 

Revolutionary War Tunnel Preserved in South Carolina

NINETY SIX, SOUTH CAROLINA—Firefighters wearing breathing equipment are assisting a team from the University of South Florida with the exploration of a siege tunnel dating to the Revolutionary War. The tunnel was dug by Americans in 1781 during the siege of Ninety Six in order to place explosives underneath the loyalist-controlled Star Fort, but they were turned back and the explosion never occurred. The unfinished tunnel will be mapped and photographed in order to create 3-D models. “We can capture whole landscapes in hours, minutes as opposed to traditional archaeology that would be out here for weeks and months,” project leader Lori Collins told WNEM. The tunnel will be stabilized and preserved, but will be closed to visitors.