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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 24

Tracking the Black Death

LINCOLN, ENGLAND—Examination of pottery from a widespread excavation campaign in eastern England supports the idea that there was a massive demographic collapse in the wake of the Black Death, which ravaged the country between 1346 and 1351. Because relatively few plague burials have been found, some scholars have doubted that the scale of depopulation was as great as medieval accounts suggest. But The Guardian reports that University of Lincoln archaeologist Carenza Lewis decided to test that hypothesis by using the relative amounts of domestic pottery recovered from different levels of some 2,000 standard test pits as a proxy for human population levels. Volunteers dug the pits in 55 rural locations known to have been occupied in the fourteenth century, and Lewis then analyzed the tens of thousands of pottery sherds that were recovered. Her study suggests the Black Death was responsible for an average population decline of 45 percent in the region, with some sites showing evidence of even steeper declines of up to 85 percent. To read more about medieval archaeology in this part of England, go to “Writing on the Church Wall.”

Site of Idaho’s Bear River Massacre Located

POCATELLO, IDAHO—The site where Union Army soldiers killed hundreds of Northwestern Shoshone in January 1863 has been identified, according to a report in the Idaho State Journal. The attack, known as the Bear River Massacre, took place at the confluence of Battle Creek and Bear River in eastern Idaho, but pinpointing it had been challenging since the river’s course has shifted multiple times in the past century and a half. Now, a team led by Idaho state archaeologist Ken Reid has used modern technology and maps made by soldiers who took part in the attack to determine that it took place around 2,300 feet north of where the creek and river join today. When Col. Patrick Connor and his 300 soldiers and cavalry launched their attack on January 29, 1863, Shoshone women and children tried to flee at the bottom of a nearby ravine. “I suspect it turned into a traffic jam and then a slaughter,” said Reid. For more, go to “Searching for the Comanche Empire.”

Neolithic Chinese Beer Recipe

MIJIAYA, CHINA—A new study shows that ceramic pots and funnels unearthed at a Neolithic site in Shaanxi province were used in China's earliest known brewery. Stanford University archaeologist Jiajing Wang analyzed residues on the artifacts, which date to between 3400 and 2900 B.C. and found traces of the chemical compound oxalate, a byproduct of brewing beer. She also discovered residues left by grains, including barley, which came as a surprise to her, since the earliest barley thus far known in China has been found in Bronze Age sites dating to around 2000 B.C. The grain was first used by the ancient Mesopotamians for brewing beer. "It is possible that when barley was introduced from western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the grain was a good ingredient for beer brewing," Wang told Live Science. "So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the knowledge associated with the crop." To read more about archaeology in China, go to "Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Archaeologists Produce 3-D Models of Shipwrecks

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Archaeologists have used 3-D printing technology to produce models of two wrecks that lie in waters off the United Kingdom, according to a report from BBC News. One wreck sits near Drumbeg and dates to the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Its identity has not been confirmed, but it may be the Crowned Raven, a Dutch trading vessel that sank in the bay in 1690 or 1691 while en route from the Baltic Sea to Portugal. The other wreck is the HMHS Anglia, a World War I hospital ship that was lost off Folkestone in Kent in 1915 after striking a German mine. Experts from Wessex Archaeology used a range of imaging techniques as well as historical resources to produce the models of the wrecks. "It's been a fascinating process to transform the light captured in the photographs and the sound captured by the sonar sensors back into solid objects through the 3-D printing process,” said archaeologist John McCarthy. For more, go to “History's 10 Greatest Wrecks...

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Monday, May 23

Coffins Discovered at Scottish School

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—The outlines of at least nine coffins have been discovered on the grounds of a primary school in the town of Leith, north of Edinburgh. The discovery was made as part of an excavation in advance of new building construction, which also turned up a lone skeleton earlier this year. “These excavations have unearthed what appears to be a complex cemetery thought to date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries,” John Lawson, an archaeologist with the City of Edinburgh Council, said in a report in the Edinburgh Evening News, “containing at least nine graves including adults and young children buried in coffins.” For more on archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Industrial Revolution-Era Burials Found In England

LEEDS, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of a future shopping center in Leeds have revealed the burials of at least 28 people, mainly children, who died between 1797 and 1848. The Yorkshire Evening Post reports that analysis of the remains shows that the people were in extremely poor health and some may have possibly died during an 1832 cholera outbreak. Jane Richardson of Archaeological Services WYAS, who led the research, says the condition of the remains confirms that living conditions in the city were particularly grim for the lower classes. “What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us,” said Richardson. “It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent." Bioarchaeologists found that at least nine of the children suffered from diseases such as rickets and scurvy. After being studied, the remains are slated to be reburied. To read more about nineteenth-century England, go to “The Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”     

Egyptian Spells Deciphered

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Two newly deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to the third century A.D. contain spells that deal with love and control, according to a report from Discovery News. The papyri, which were written in Greek, were discovered as part of a larger cache more than 100 years ago in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and have been gradually studied and translated since then. One spell instructs the spell caster to burn a number of offerings in a bathhouse and write a spell on its walls calling on the gods to “burn the heart” of a woman who has withheld her love. The other, designed to force a man to obey the caster’s every command, instructs the caster to engrave a series of magical words onto a copper plaque and then affix it to something the man wears, such as a sandal. The spells were translated by Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, and both were written so the caster could insert a target of their choice. For more, go to “The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum.”

Castle Unearthed In Wales

CAERNARFON, WALES—Archaeologists in northern Wales have unearthed the remains of a small medieval castle, reports the North Wales Chronicle. A team lead by Jane Kenny of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust spent two years working at the site, known as Han Gastell, which had previously been supposed to be an Iron Age hillfort. But instead of prehistoric fortifications, the team discovered the remains of a defended enclosure dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Kenney speculates that it was probably built by a minor noble and then occupied by no more than four generations before being abandoned. Post holes at the site indicated that the castle once had a large timber hall or tower and the discovery of a large amount of metal slag showed it had its own blacksmithy. The team also discovered decorative bronze and brass objects as well as an iron knife. To read more about archaeology in the area, go to “Letter From Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”  

Friday, May 20

U.S. Returns Christopher Columbus Letter to Italy

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In 1493, after his initial voyage, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, which was reprinted and distributed to spread information about the New World. According to a report in Live Science, a joint American-Italian investigation team has determined that one of the 80 surviving copies of the letter, donated to the Library of Congress, had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, where a forgery had been left in its place. The forged document, in addition to having mismatched stitching, lacked an original Riccardiana Library stamp. Investigators also found that bleach had been used to remove the Riccardiana Library’s stamp from the letter in the Library of Congress. “We are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware Charles M. Oberly III said in a statement. How the theft took place is still under investigation. To read about a forensic study of a map Columbus is believed to have consulted, go to "Reading the Invisible Ink." 

Angkor-Era Kiln Excavated in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—According to The Cambodia Daily, Phon Kaseka, director of archaeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, is leading the excavation of one of 69 known kiln sites near Cheung Ek Lake that produced water jugs, cooking pots, vases, boxes, and ritual objects. During the wet season, this kiln would have been close to the edge of the lake, where boats could have picked up the pots for distribution throughout the Angkorian Empire. The earliest kilns in the area are thought to date to the fifth century. The kiln currently under excavation may date to between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. After the thirteenth century, local production is thought to have tapered off. Fewer than ten of the 69 kiln sites are intact, but economic development in the area will soon destroy all of them. “What we don’t know about, and what has probably been largely destroyed through development by now, is about inhabitants in the Phnom Penh area during the Angkorian period,” commented Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. To read more, go to "Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape."

Artifacts Mark the Spot of Possible First San Antonio Mission

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—City archaeologist Kay Hindes says that there were two missions before the Alamo, which was built by Spanish missionaries in 1724. “There were three locations of Mission San Antonio de Valero,” she said in a News 4 San Antonio report. The first site dates to 1718 and was only in use for about a year. Scholars aren’t sure why the mission was moved to the second location, but when a hurricane hit the region in 1724, the mission moved to the current site of the Alamo. Hindes has recovered pottery, beads, and nails at what she thinks was the mission’s first location. “I looked down and started seeing the metal and I literally, really, I just had to sit down on the ground because I was like ‘This is too incredible,’” she said. To read more about the archaeology of the Southwest, go to "Searching for the Comanche Empire."

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