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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, February 11

Fossils May Last Longer in Colder Climates

LARAMIE, WYOMING—Statistical analysis shows that more fossils, such as the remains of mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and ground sloths, have been lost in the continental United States and South America than in Alaska and areas near the Bering Strait. Todd Surovell and Spencer Pelton of the University of Wyoming compiled radiocarbon dates of bones from animals that died during the Pleistocene era and the rates at which sedimentary deposits were lost over time. “While bone preservation in Arctic regions is aided by cold temperatures and the presence of permafrost, considerably more bone has been lost over time in regions farther south—in fact, at a faster rate than the sediments in which they were deposited have eroded,” Surovell said in a press release. “That means that researchers must adjust for those differences as they estimate the numbers of these animals, many of which are now extinct, across the Americas,” he said. Estimates of populations of large mammals can be used to determine if their extinctions were caused by human hunters. 

Research Suggests Horses Can Read Human Emotions

SUSSEX, ENGLAND—Domesticated horses are able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions, according to a study conducted by Amy Smith and Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. When shown angry human faces, the horses looked more with the left eye, which allows the right brain hemisphere to process threatening stimuli. (Dogs have also been shown to have a tendency to use the left eye when viewing negative human facial expressions.) The horses’ heart rates also increased more quickly, and they exhibited more stress-related behaviors, when shown the angry human expressions. “In this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling,” Smith said in a press release. “There are several possible explanations for our findings,” added McComb. “Horses may have adapted an ancestral ability for reading emotional cues in other horses to respond appropriately to human facial expressions during their co-evolution. Alternatively, individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their own lifetime,” she explained. For more, go to "The Story of the Horse."

Remains in Roman Necropolis May Represent Migrants

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—According to a press release, Kristina Killgrove of the University of West Florida and Janet Montgomery of Durham University analyzed isotope ratios in the teeth of 105 skeletons in an effort to determine what these individuals ate over the course of their lifetimes and where they had been born. The skeletons came from two Roman cemeteries dating to the first through third centuries A.D., and their burials suggest that they may have been poor or enslaved. The results of the study, published in PLOS ONE, indicate that as many as eight of these individuals, mostly men and children, may have come from North Africa and the Alps. They probably adapted to the local Roman diet of wheat, legumes, meat, and fish. Further isotope analysis and DNA studies could provide more information. For more, see "The Gladiator Diet."

New Fossils Found in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A chamber in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves has yielded four early hominin fossils that can be associated with stone tools dating to more than two million years ago. Two of these fossils, a finger bone and a tooth, are new to scientists. The finger bone is large and curved, but lacks the strong muscle attachments expected for a hominin living in trees. “The finger is similar in shape to the partial specimen from Olduvai Gorge that has been called Homo habilis, but is much larger. Overall, this specimen is unique in the South African plio-pleistocene fossil hominin record and deserves more studies,” Dominic Stratford of the University of the Witwatersrand said in a press release. The tooth is a relatively small, adult first molar resembling the teeth of Homo habilis and perhaps Homo naledi, discovered in 2013 in Rising Star Cave. “The specimens are exciting not only because they are associated with early stone tools, but also because they possess a mixture of intriguing features that raise many more questions than they give answers,” Stratford said. For more on Homo naledi, go to "A New Human Relative."

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Wednesday, February 10

Colchester’s Monumental Roman Arcade Uncovered

COLCHESTER, ENGLAND—Archaeologists have known about the arcade that had been built at the Temple of Claudius in Colchester for some 60 years, but the demolition of a modern office block has uncovered evidence that the covered walkway was the largest in Roman Britain. The arcade was built in the first or second century A.D., following the destruction of Colchester during Boudicca’s rebellion. “Its closest rival in terms of size stands in what was Gaul, in northern France, and shares some of the architecture we can see in Colchester today,” Philip Crummy, director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, told The Telegraph. “The original arcade and its grand columns are similar to those you see in Bath, at the Roman Baths. It really is an extraordinary find and confirms the grandeur and richness of its Roman culture,” he said. For more on the Roman period in England, go to "What’s in a Name?"

Hoard of Medieval Coins Discovered in Denmark

FOULUM, DENMARK—Three members of the Central Jutland Detector Society discovered a cache of 700-year-old coins in a field near the excavation of an Iron Age building. The poor quality and low silver content of the coins are thought to reflect the civil war in Denmark at the time. “The treasure comes from an unstable period, and it is conceivable that the owner wanted to hide them away until better and more stable times. For some unknown reason, he never returned to collect his coins,” Viborg Museum curator Mikkel Kjeldsen told The Local, Denmark. The coins will be cleaned and displayed at Viborg Museum. For more on archaeology in Jutland, go to "Bronze Age Bride."

Tests Reveal Sources of Rome’s White Marble

MADRID, SPAIN—Mónica Alvarez de Buergo of Madrid’s Geosciences Institute and scientists from the University of Calabria collected 50 samples of white marble from the now-submerged luxury villas in the Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia, located near Naples. The Roman emperors Augustus and Nero owned villas in the city, which thrived between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. “First, thin layers of the collected marble were observed using a petrographic microscope. Then, the mineral composition of the marble was studied using X-ray diffraction and the manganese content was determined with Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry. Scanning Electron Microscopy was then carried out and various isotopes were analyzed,” Alvarez de Buergo said in a press release. The team compared the test results with the chemical signatures of eight of the best marble quarries of the ancient world, and found matches for all but five of the samples. “The variety and quality of the marble identified highlight the importance held by this area in the past seeing as it yielded the best ornamental marble of that time period, and this helps to determine the trade routes that were used at that point in time during the Roman Empire,” she said. For more on marble in Ancient Rome, go to "A Spin through Augustan Rome."

Greece’s Ancient Silver-Mining Infrastructure Studied

GHENT, BELGIUM—A team of mining archaeologists has investigated a 5,000-year-old silver mine in Thorikos, Greece. The cramped mines were likely to have been worked by slaves, who endured the lack of light, fresh air, and temperatures that hovered around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. “The progress of the underground survey required a constant vigilance in this stuffy space where the rate of oxygen must be permanently watched,” Denis Morin of the University of Lorraine said in a press release. The team members have found tool marks on the walls of the subterranean galleries, graffiti, pottery, oil lamps, stone hammers, and crushing areas. By the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., silver was extracted on a large scale with a sophisticated system from shafts cut through the rock. For more on ancient silver mining, go to "The Environmental Cost of Empire."

Tuesday, February 09

Unknown Trajan Statue Housed in Bulgaria’s National Museum

SOFIA, BULGARIA—Pieces of a bronze statue of Emperor Trajan, discovered in the 1980s, could be restored by conservators at Bulgaria’s National Museum of History. Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the second-century statue, decorated with images of gods and heroes from ancient mythology, has been stored in the conservation laboratory at the museum, but has never been shown to the public. It was unearthed at the site of Candidiana, a Roman road station and fortress located on the Danube River. The fort was eventually destroyed during the invasions of the Byzantine period. The museum’s conservators just need funding to restore the statue and space to display it when they are finished. For more on Emperor Trajan, go to "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."

Badger Discovers 4,000-Year-Old Archer’s Burial

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A Bronze Age burial was discovered near Stonehenge after a badger dug up a cremation urn and other pieces of pottery and left them on the surface of the ground. Senior archaeologist Richard Osgood of the Ministry of Defense told BBC News that the burial, which included a bronze saw, an archer’s wrist guard, a copper chisel, shaft straighteners, and cremated human remains, may have belonged to an archer or a person who made archery equipment. The badger’s claw marks can be seen on some of the pottery fragments. “There are badger setts in quite a few scheduled monuments—the actions of burrowing animals is one of the biggest risks to archaeology in Britain—but to bring out items of this quality from one hole is unusual,” he said. For more on animals as excavators, go to "Critter Diggers."

Tree-Ring Data Reveals Little Ice Age 1,500 Years Ago

BIRMENSDORF, SWITZERLAND—Tree-ring data collected in the Altai Mountains of Russia have helped scientists reconstruct summer temperatures in central Asia for the past 2,000 years. “The course temperatures we took in the Altai Mountains correspond remarkably well to what we found in the Alps,” Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape WSL said in a press release. His multidisciplinary research team detected a period of low temperatures in the sixth century A.D. that they call the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” or LALIA. The low temperatures were likely the result of three volcanic eruptions in the mid-sixth century that ejected particles into the atmosphere and blocked sunlight. The resulting famine was followed by the pandemic of the Justinian plague and political turmoil that may have led to the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire. To the south, the Arabian Peninsula received more rain than usual and grew more vegetation that may have sustained larger herds of camels used by Arab armies. “The LALIA fits in well with the main transformative events that occurred in Eurasia during that time,” Büntgen explained. For more, go to "Letter from Iceland: Surviving the Little Ice Age." 

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