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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, April 20

Everyday Latin Read on Spain’s “Terra Sigillata”

VALÈNCIA, SPAIN—Josep Montesinos of the Asociación RUVID, and Xaverio Ballester of the University of València are gathering information about the Latin spoken in Roman Hispania through the writing found on the molded and stamped ceramic wares kept in the Spanish Royal Academy of History. “Research focuses on the words written on the surface of these everyday ceramic pieces which can provide linguistic data, but also territorial and ethnological information,” Montesinos said in a press release. The pots bear marks and decorations made by their users, and include personal details such as proper names and colloquial phrases. The ceramics “allow us to approach the real language, popular Latin, very different from formal Latin or from that found in obituaries and, therefore, reveal the customs and habits of Roman Hispania,” Montesinos explained.

Steel Blade May Have Been Wielded by Mongol Invader

YAROSLAVL, RUSSIA—Analysis of a fragment taken from a saber found in a mass grave in the historic trade center of Yaroslavl indicates it is the oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe. Steel of this kind was first produced in India in the first century A.D., and later in Central Asia, but it was very expensive during the medieval period. The grave, located alongside the Dormition Cathedral, holds the remains of people slaughtered during the invasion of the city by Batu Khan in 1238. “The site contains comprehensive evidence of the atrocity committed that day. We found numerous skeletons of murdered women and children, many household objects like dishes, jewelry, many weapons, and this saber,” Asya Engovatova of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a press release. The weapon’s handle has been lost, and its blade is bent. Micro-cracks in the blade show that it had been heated to a high temperature, perhaps in order to bend it before it was discarded. Engovatova thinks the blade may have belonged to a wealthy warrior from Batu Khan’s army. 

New Thoughts on Neanderthal Cooking

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Neanderthals went extinct in most of Europe around 40,000 years ago, some 5,000 years after the arrival of the first modern humans. “The issue of Neanderthal extinction is very complex, and very little is agreed upon,” Anna Goldfield of Boston University said at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, reported in Live Science. She thinks that mastery of fire may have given modern humans an advantage over Neanderthals in the struggle for survival. Cooking would have provided modern humans with more calories from the same amount of food, and it kills bacteria, making the food safer to eat. Fires also provide warmth. Goldfield and mathematical biologist Ross Booton of the University of Sheffield used mathematical models to simulate how the populations of modern humans and Neanderthals might have changed if modern humans were using fire more frequently than Neanderthals, and when the two groups were using fire about equally. They also looked at the reindeer population—a food source for both groups. The numbers suggest that if modern humans used fire more often than the Neanderthals, they would have eventually won the competition for resources. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post reports that a study published in the journal Antiquity suggests that Neanderthals living in northern Spain some 50,000 years ago were cooking with chamomile and yarrow, which have anti-microbial and anti-parasitic properties, just because they liked the taste. Chemicals from the herbs and chemicals associated with smoked and cooked meats were found on the Neanderthals’ teeth by a team led by Karen Hardy of the University of Barcelona. Sabrina Krief of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues agree that the Neanderthals may have used the herbs as medicine, or even as flavor enhancers, since they have observed chimpanzees in the wild chewing bitter herbs and flavorful soils before and during meat-based meals. “The strong, bitter taste of the leaves may modify the flavor of viscera, muscles, organs, or water. The bitter taste of the cooked plant does not necessarily disappear completely; chamomile, or example remains bitter when infused,” they wrote. To read more about Neanderthals, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Fragments of the Ancient Wall of Memphis Found

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team from the Russian Institute of Egyptology at Kom Tuman has uncovered white limestone fragments of the wall that surrounded the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, which sits at the mouth of the Nile Delta. The 5,200-year-old enclosure wall protected the palaces of the pharaohs and the state administrative buildings. “Unlike royal tombs, pyramids, mortuary, and cult-related temples and any other buildings related to the afterlife, ancient Egyptian royal palaces, administrative offices, houses, and other life-related buildings were often made of mud brick,” Kamal Wahid, director of the central administration of Giza antiquities, told The Cairo Post. The city, now known for its colossal statue of Ramses II, was founded at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. by Menes, the first-dynasty pharaoh who was the first to unify the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. “A number of pottery-making ovens and bronze tools were also found. The excavations will continue and we will be working to unearth the rest of the wall, as well as any archaeological elements which could help us to know more about this early period of Egyptian history,” added Galina A. Belova, director of the Russian archaeological team. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

More Headlines
Friday, April 17

Pictish Fort Unearthed on Scottish Sea Stack

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—A team of six archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen climbed Dunnicaer sea stack on the northeast coast of Scotland, where they uncovered traces of a Pictish fort, including a house, a fireplace, and ramparts. “It shows that people, for at least part of the year, were living on the sea stack which is quite remarkable. There were quite a lot of forts on the coastline and in Moray, control of the sea seems to be a big part of power to the Picts,” archaeologist Gordon Noble told The Press and Journal. The team ascended the sea stack with the help of professional climber Duncan Paterson. “I don’t think any of them have much experience of this kind of terrain, so it’s been a big challenge. Beating the tide was also a challenge, and then I set up a tension rope—some would call it a zip wire—to get them across the water and then they were roped up to climb the stack,” Paterson said. “Was this a precursor to Dunnottar Castle, or one of a series of Pictish forts along this coastline?” wondered Noble. He and his team may return to the site for further excavations. For another sea stack project, see "Scots on the Rocks."

More Evidence of Cannibalism Found in Gough’s Cave

LONDON, ENGLAND—Ancient human remains from Gough’s Cave, located in southwest England, exhibit signs of a sophisticated culture of butchering and carving of human remains, according to scientists from the Natural History Museum of London, University College London, and IPHES and the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Spain. In 2011, scientists from the museum announced that the earliest-known skull cups had been found in Gough’s Cave. “We’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research. We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow,” Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum said in a press release. Radiocarbon dates show that the bones were deposited over a short period of time, possibly during seasonal occupations, nearly 15,000 years ago. Cannibalism may have been part of a mortuary practice that combined processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull cups. “Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough’s Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world,” said Simon Parfitt of University College London. For more recent evidence of the practice, see "Colonial Cannibalism."

Mushrooms Were on the Upper Palaeolithic Menu

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of dental calculus on 18,000-year-old teeth found in Spain’s El Mirón Cave indicates that Magdalenian hunters ate a variety of plant foods and mushrooms, in addition to meat from red deer and ibex. Robert Power of the Max Planck Research Group detected a diverse assemblage of microremains in the dental calculus using optical and scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. “These types of microremains show that the individuals at El Mirón consumed a variety of plants from different environments, as well as other foods, including possibly bolete mushrooms,” he said in a press release. “This finding at El Mirón Cave could be the earliest indication of human mushroom use or consumption, which until this point has been unidentified in the Palaeolithic,” Power concluded. To read about a similar discovery, see "Bone Analysis Shows Gravettian People Ate Mammoth."

Were Footprints Left by Homo Erectus Hunters?

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Some 100 footprints near Ileret, Kenya, are thought to have been left 1.5 million years old by a hunting party made up of Homo erectus adults. “What we can say is that we have a number of individuals, probably males, that are moving across a lake shore in a way that is consistent with how carnivores move,” palaeoanthropologist Neil Roach of the American Museum of Natural History said at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, reported in Nature. Some researchers have speculated that Homo erectus turned from scavenging to hunting to obtain more calories for their developing brains. But “hunting is a difficult thing to prove in human evolution,” Roach said. He and his team plan to study footprints left behind by subsistence hunters today in order to get a better idea of their patterns of movement for comparison. To read in-depth about the evolution of throwing, see "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Thursday, April 16

Sections of The Great Wall Found in Northwest China

YINCHUAN, CHINA—Nine sections of the Great Wall have been found along the border of northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Gansu Province. “Finally, we’re able to see the whole picture of the Qin Great Wall,” Zhou Xinghua, a former curator of the Museum of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region told China Daily. Six of the sections are on the southern bank of the Yellow River, and stretch between Nanchangtan Village in Ningxia and Jingyuan County in Gansu. The wall would have prevented invaders from crossing the river when it was frozen. The other three sections are in Jingyuan County. To read about a massive, ancient wall in what is now Russia, see "The Shah's Great Wall."

Imported Artifacts Unearthed at 1,000-Year-Old Alaska Site

BOULDER, COLORADO—Bronze and obsidian artifacts discovered in a dwelling at Alaska’s Rising Whale site bolster the idea that there had been a trading relationship between the New World and East Asia 1,000 years ago. One of the bronze artifacts, which may have been used as a buckle or fastener, still has a piece of leather attached to it. Preliminary radiocarbon dates indicate that it was made around A.D. 600. The second bronze artifact may have been used as a whistle. Bronze had not yet been developed in Alaska, so the items may have been obtained through trade. “We’re seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called ‘high civilizations’ of China, Korea, or Yakutia,” Owen Mason of the University of Colorado told Live Science. The obsidian from the house originated in Russia’s Anadyr River Valley. Scholars think that the people who lived at the Rising Whale site may have been members of the “Birnirk” culture, a group of people who lived on both sides of the Bering Strait. To read more about archaeology in the region, see "Ice Age Infant Burial Discovered in Central Alaska."

WWII Aircraft Carrier Mapped With 3-D Sonar

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Navy, and private industry partners have confirmed the location and condition of the USS Independence, a light aircraft carrier that operated in the central and western Pacific from November 1943 through August 1945. The ship was later one of 90 vessels that served as a target fleet for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946, when it was damaged by shock waves, heat, and radiation from two atomic blasts. Independence then returned to the United States, where it was used by the Navy to study decontamination until it was towed off the coast of California in 1951 and scuttled in 3,000 feet of water. “After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes,” James Delgado, maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said in a press release. The survey of the ship determined that it is upright, slightly listing to starboard, and much of its flight deck is intact. There are gaping holes leading to the hangar decks that once housed the carrier’s aircraft. To read more about underwater archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Shipwrecks."

Crafting Stone-Age Tools Requires Complex Thought

EXETER, ENGLAND—Archaeology students at the University of Exeter learned to make stone tools in the Oldowan and Acheulean traditions over an 18-month period, in order to evaluate the cognitive control required to make them successfully. At the beginning, middle, and end of the experiment, they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans of their brains while they watched videos and were asked questions about tool making. “For the first time, we’ve showed a relationship between the degree of prefrontal brain activity, the ability to make technological judgments, and success in actually making stone tools,” Dietrich Stout of Emory University said in a press release on Phys.org. Oldowan flakes, which date back 2.6 million years, are relatively easy to make, and the students were asked to detach five flakes from a flint core. Late Acheulean hand axes are about 500,000 years old and require the knapper to produce a tool with symmetrical edges from a lens-shaped core. The subjects were give a standardized porcelain core to work with for this task. The researchers, including Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter, Thierry Chaminade of Aix-Marseille University, and Erin Hecht and Nada Khreisheh of Emory University, found that students who demonstrated greater skill at making tools were more accurate at predicting the correct strategy for making a hand ax while watching the instructional videos. “These data suggest that making an Acheulean hand ax is not simply a rote, auto pilot activity of the brain. It requires you to engage in some complicated thinking,” Stout said. He adds that the modern axes “weren’t up to the high standards of 500,000 years ago.” To read about one of the most significant Acheulean hand ax discoveries of recent times, see "Bon Voyage, Caveman."