Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, October 25

What Motivated the Violent Burials of the Sonoran Desert?

TUCSON, ARIZONA—The Washington Post reports that James Watson and Danielle Phelps of the University of Arizona examined unusual burials dating to the beginning of the agricultural period in the Sonoran Desert, around 2100 B.C. When a body was buried on its side, with its arms crossed and knees bent, the person is thought to have been buried with the respect of the community. But sometimes, bodies were tumbled headfirst into graves, with bones broken and limbs splayed. Watson and Phelps suggest that as people moved into settled communities and attempted to establish control over farming territories, tensions between different groups may have turned into feuds lasting generations. These tensions may be reflected in the violent deaths and disrespectful burials. Watson speculates that desecrating the corpse of an enemy may have been a way to gain prestige, but it also could have increased the risk of retaliation. For more, go to “Early Parrots in the Southwest.”

Sixth-Century Swords Discovered in Japan

EBINO, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that two swords have been recovered from a sixth-century A.D. tomb on the island of Kyushu. One of the weapons, which has a wooden pommel, would have measured about 60 inches long and is said to be the longest sword ever found in an ancient tomb in Japan. The opening of its scabbard was covered with a valuable textile. The hilt of the other sword, which has a pommel decorated with silver, is covered with ray skin. It is said to be the oldest such item found in East Asia, and may have been made in the Paekche kingdom, on the Korean Peninsula. “The swords suggest there was a powerful person in southern Kyushu, who would have directly served someone in the upper rank close to the Yamato king, and would have gone overseas in charge of foreign politics,” said researcher Tatsuya Hashimoto of Kagoshima University Museum. The tomb has also yielded armor, horse harnesses, and human remains. To read about the discovery of another sword, go to “Viking Trading or Raiding?

Photogrammetric Models Made of Black Sea Shipwrecks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND— reports that the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project found more than 40 Byzantine and Ottoman shipwrecks during geophysical surveys of the Black Sea seabed along the Bulgarian coast. Many of the hulls, masts, tillers, and other features of the ships are well preserved, due to the low oxygen levels in the deep waters. Principal investigator and University of Southampton marine archaeologist Jon Adams and his team of researchers recorded information about the ships with laser scanners, and they took thousands of high-resolution photographs and videos of the shipwrecks with remotely operated vehicles. The images were then assembled with photogrammetry to build 3-D models of the shipwrecks. To read about another archaeological project involving photogrammetry, go to “A New View of the Birthplace of the Olympics.”


More Headlines
Monday, October 24

Great Basilica Yields Medieval Fresco Fragment

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA—The Sofia Globe reports that archaeologists excavating the northern nave of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv have uncovered a fragment of a medieval painting thought to depict Peter, the Christian saint. The original church on the site had been located in the center of the ancient city of Philippopolis, and dates to the beginning of the fifth century A.D. The structure is thought to have been destroyed by invaders in the sixth century. Eighteen medieval burials, including the remains of children and a possible priest, were recently found resting on the original building’s mosaic floors. The excavators think the fine quality of the medieval fresco suggests it was probably part of a mural painted in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries by a master from Constantinople. The excavation team also found a donor inscription near the mural, written in Greek, bearing the name “Avram.” For more on archaeology in Bulgaria, go to “Thracian Treasure Chest.”

2,500-Year-Old Cannabis Plants Found in Northwestern China

BEIJING, CHINA—Live Science reports that 13 Cannabis plants were discovered covering a man’s body in a 2,500-year-old burial located in the large Jiayi cemetery in arid northwestern China. About 35 years old at the time of death, the man was placed on a wooden bed with a reed pillow. The root-ends of the Cannabis plants were placed over his pelvis, so that the leaves reached his chin on the left side of his face. Hongen Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his team suggest the burial occurred in the late summer, since the plants bore immature fruit. They also suggest that the lack of hemp clothing and rope in the burial, and the large size of the plants’ seeds, indicate that they were grown for their psychoactive properties. Pottery from the cemetery suggests that it belonged to the Subeixi culture of the Turpan Basin. Processed Cannabis flowers were found in another Subeixi graveyard in 2006. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Child’s Rattle Unearthed in Siberia

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that a child’s toy has been unearthed at the site of a Bronze Age settlement in Siberia. The 4,000-year-old rattle was made by sealing small stones in clay shaped as a bear’s head. Archaeologist Vyacheslav Molodin of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Russian Academy of Sciences explained that the artifact will be X-rayed to try to determine what kind of stones were used to make the rattle. He added that the rattle is believed to bear a stamp including a drawing made when the clay was still wet. The settlement has also yielded a figurine shaped like a bird that may have been used as an incense stand. For more, go to “Letter from Siberia: Fortress of Solitude.”

Friday, October 21

Island Chiefdom May Offer Insight Into Complex Societies

DALLAS, TEXAS—Fox News reports that Mark McCoy of Southern Methodist University and his team calculated the age of Nan Madol, a capital ruled by a single chief on the Pacific island of Pohnpei. Using uranium-thorium dating, the researchers found that the tomb where Nan Madol’s first chief was buried dates back to A.D. 1180, or about 100 years earlier than similar tombs elsewhere in the Pacific. McCoy described Nan Madol as the first site in the remote Pacific islands to serve as a seat of political power, religious rituals, and monumental burial. This information could help researchers understand how human societies evolved more complex, hierarchical systems. “The main finding here was the discovery of strong archaeological evidence of [the] rise of the first chiefs to rule the island,” McCoy said. “Something that of course is described in Pohnpei’s own oral histories, but with the results described in our new paper, can now be compared to other islands in the Pacific and societies around the world.” To read in-depth about another Pacific island, go to “Letter From the Marshall Islands: Defuzing the Past.”

Possible Third 16th-Century Ship Found in Florida Waters

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—The Pensacola News Journal reports that archaeologists and students from the University of West Florida have found a third shipwreck in Pensacola Bay. All three ships are thought to have been part of Don Tristan de Luna’s expedition, which included 11 ships and 1,500 people sent to colonize Florida for Spain. One month after Luna arrived in 1559 on the northern Gulf Coast, a hurricane sank many of the ships and wiped out much of the expedition’s supplies. The newly discovered ship, found in shallower water than the two previously discovered, may have been La Salvadora, a smaller ship that had been built in the New World. “We’ll take the wood sample soon and see what it’s made out of,” said historian John Worth, who has been studying the Luna settlement, which was discovered last year. “Is it a New World species or Old World species? If it turned out to be [La Salvadora] that would be really exciting, because that would be the earliest ship built in the New World that’s documented,” he explained. So far, the team has found ballast stones, iron concretions, an articulated hull, planking, and ceramics. The Luna expedition ended in 1561, when Spanish ships rescued the surviving colonists and returned them to Mexico. For more, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”

Homo Habilis May Have Been Right Handed

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—HealthDay News reports that University of Kansas professor emeritus David Frayer has found evidence of right-handedness in a Homo habilis specimen. He and his team conducted experiments to re-create scratch marks similar to the ones found on 1.8-million-year-old Homo habilis teeth found in Tanzania. Most of the marks, located on the lip side of the specimen’s upper front teeth, veer from the left down to the right. The team members suggest that the marks were made when the hominin used a stone tool, held in the right hand, to cut food held with the teeth and the left hand. Frayer explained that Homo habilis was already thought to have had lateralization of the brain, meaning that each side of the brain has functional specializations for tasks such as handedness and language. Further research could show that how the brain is organized may be important in identifying the origins of human ancestors. For more, go to “Earliest Stone Tools.”