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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, May 27

Lethal Wounds Suggest Spain’s Pit of Bones Was a Burial Site

MADRID, SPAIN—Discovery News reports that a new analysis of Cranium 17 from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos suggests that the individual had been killed some 430,000 years ago by two blows to the head with the same object. The Sima de los Huesos, or Pit of Bones, is located at the bottom of a deep shaft in an underground cave system in northern Spain. It contains the remains of at least 28 individuals who are thought to be proto-Neanderthals and Neanderthals, but how the remains arrived in the pit has been a mystery until now. “Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill,” wrote Nohemi Sala, a researcher at Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos and lead author of the study published in PLOS One. Sala suggests that the blows to the skull indicate that the bodies of the dead must have been placed there. The Pit of Bones could thus “represent the earliest funerary behavior in the human fossil record.” To read about recent DNA research into the Sima de los Huesos remains, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

U.S. Returns Looted Artifacts to Italy

ROME, ITALY—The United States has returned 25 historic artifacts, including Etruscan vases, first-century frescoes, a third-century B.C. terracotta head, the cover of a second-century Roman sarcophagus, and a second-century bronze figurine to Rome. Some of the looted objects had been handed over to U.S. authorities by American museums, universities, and private collections when it became clear that the items had been stolen. Other artifacts were seized by police and customs officers. “Italy is blessed with a rich cultural legacy and therefore cursed to suffer the pillaging of important cultural artifacts,” U.S. Ambassador John Phillips said at a press conference reported by the Associated Press. He also said that the United States has returned more than 7,500 cultural artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007. Interpol estimates that each year, antiquities trafficking produces $9 billion in profits. To read about earlier repatriations, see "A Tangled Journey Home."

Artifacts Recovered from HMS Erebus

NUNAVUT, CANADA—Last month, underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada with the support of Royal Canadian Navy divers descended to the wreck site of HMS Erebus, lost nearly 170 years ago during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The ship, discovered late last summer in remote Arctic waters, was covered with kelp. Over the course of the five-day project, the team removed the kelp from the well-preserved ship’s port side. “It’s tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site,” senior underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris told CBC News. “We haven’t identified what caused it to sink. Maybe on the starboard side we’ll see some evidence of trauma,” he added. The divers found Franklin’s cabin, and they recovered a cannon, ceramic plates, and two brass buttons from the uniform of a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Marines. “Those are the artifacts that are probably the most personal,” Harris said. To read more, see "Saga of the Northwest Passage." 

Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard Continues

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Fragments of artifacts from the Staffordshire Hoard have been cleaned and are being fitted together in work funded by Historic England and public donations. The seventh-century Anglo-Saxon artifacts include a rare high-status helmet and a unique form of sword pommel that was in 26 pieces when it was uncovered. The pommel “combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest seventh-century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures,” project archaeologist Chris Fern said in a Birmingham Museums press release. The helmet was discovered in 1,500 thin, fragile sheets and strips of silver that had been stamped with designs depicting warriors, birds, animals, and mythical beasts. And it had a gilded helmet band, a decoration thought to have encircled the helmet. “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendor. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy,” Fern explained. The original find of the hoard was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2009, to read more, go to "Anglo-Saxon Hoard."

More Headlines
Tuesday, May 26

The Search for a Revolutionary War Prison Camp

YORK, PENNSYLVANIA—Archaeologist Steve Warfel is leading the search for the stockade at the site of Camp Security, where British prisoners from the Battle of Saratoga and the Battle of Yorktown were held during the final years of the Revolutionary War, from 1781 to 1783. “There should be a very specific footprint for this stockade. I’m looking for a soil stain,” Warfel told The York Dispatch. When the prisoners from the Battle of Yorktown arrived at the camp, those from the Battle of Saratoga were moved into huts outside the stockade to make room for them. This area, which came to be known as Camp Indulgence, is thought to have been found nearby in 1979, when archaeologists recovered thousands of artifacts, but no sign of the stockade. Warfel is using its location to help in the search for the Camp Security stockade. “It’s not quite a needle in a haystack, but it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. To read about a Civil-War era prison camp, go to "Life on the Inside."

Archaeologists Report Recent Damage to Egyptian Tomb

CAIRO, EGYPT—The Catholic Leuven University archaeology mission announced on their Facebook page (KU Leuven - Egyptologie) that a section of a wall relief had been removed from the wall of the 3,850-year-old tomb of Djehutyhotep, located in the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha, where they had been excavating. “A small scene to the east of the entrance has been hacked out. It was damaged already in Newberry’s day (1891-1892), but it still showed the well preserved top part of a man carrying a chest towards Djehutyhotep. It was also one of the few reliefs where the head of a figure was still in good condition,” Monica Hanna, co-founder of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, told The Cairo Post. Djehutyhotep is thought to have been a provincial governor during the 12th Dynasty. To read about a recently excavated temple in Sudan, see "The Cult of Amun."

Seal Left Impression of Musical Scene 5,000 Years Ago

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Scholars have taken a fresh look at a 5,000-year-old seal impression unearthed in western Galilee in the 1970s, and think that it may be the oldest depiction of music being played ever found in Israel. The image shows two standing women and one sitting woman, who is playing a musical instrument, thought to be a lyre. The performance could be a scene from the sacred marriage ritual between a Mesopotamian king and a goddess. “We identified it as a lyre by searching through artworks and observing the remains of actual lyres found in Mesopotamia,” Yitzhak Paz of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Haaretz. Other known seal impressions from the third millennium B.C. depict dancing and feasting as part of this sacred marriage rite. To read more about Bronze Age seal impressions, go to "Lasting Impressions."

Friday, May 22

Medieval Hospital Foundations Found Under York Theatre Royal

YORK, ENGLAND—The foundations of St. Leonard’s Hospital have been found under the stage and auditorium at the site of the York Theatre Royal. It had been thought that the medieval foundations had been destroyed in the Victorian era, but they have been found intact. “It is amazing that, considering all the alterations to the theater since 1764, so much of the medieval hospital has survived under the stalls and elsewhere within the building,” chief archaeologist Ben Reeves told The Northern Echo. To read about another recent medieval discovery in England, go to "Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur."

Early Moche Temple Discovered in Peru

LIMA, PERU—A small temple thought to predate the great temples of the Moche culture has been discovered on a mountain in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru. The two small mounds on the mountain are surrounded by looted cemeteries. “The temple, which is 30 meters wide and 40 meters long, dates back to the earliest stage of the Mochica culture,” archaeologist Walter Alva, Director of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, told The Andina News Agency. The oldest Mochica structure at the site is a white and yellow low platform. There are signs of erosion of the adobe structures from heavy rain and subsequent repairs. “This might imply that heavy rains affected the place in early Mochica’s times and that its origin must have been characterized by small religious and administrative centers that later evolved into huge pyramidal constructions such as Sipan and Pampagrande,” he added.

Dogs May Have Split From Wolves 10,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—DNA from an ancient Taimyr wolf bone from Siberia has been compared to DNA from modern dogs by Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, and Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. They say that the specimen, dated to 35,000 years ago, represents the most recent common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs, and shares a large number of genes with today’s Siberian Huskies and Greenland sled dogs. “Dogs may have been domesticated much earlier than is generally believed,” Dalén said in a press release. It is also possible that there was a divergence between two wolf populations at that time, and one of those populations gave rise to modern wolves, but if that were so, then the second wolf population would have had to have gone extinct in the wild. “It is possible that a population of wolves remained relatively untamed but tracked human groups to a large degree, for a long time,” added Skoglund. Earlier genetic studies have suggested that the ancestors of domesticated dogs split from wolves no more than 16,000 years ago. To read more about the archaeology of dogs, see "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Ancient Aqueduct Revealed in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have excavated a section of Jerusalem’s ancient Lower Aqueduct, which was uncovered during the construction of a new sewer line in the Umm Tuba quarter of the city. “The Lower Aqueduct to Jerusalem, which the Hasmonean kings constructed more than 2,000 years ago in order to provide water to Jerusalem, operated intermittently until about 100 years ago,” excavation director Ya’akov Billig said in a press release. The aqueduct began at a spring near Solomon’s Pools and sloped gently downward for more than ten miles along an open channel until the Ottoman period, when a terracotta pipe was installed inside the channel to protect the water as it traveled through the growing city. This section of the aqueduct has been preserved for future generations. To read more about ancient aqueducts, go to "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."