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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, September 16

Cirencester’s Bronze Cockerel

CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—Cotswold Archaeology announced that the Cirencester cockerel—a colorful, enameled bronze figurine of a young rooster discovered in a child’s grave in 2011—will go on display at Corinium Museum this month. Such figurines are thought to have been crafted in Britain and exported across the empire, but only eight of them have survived. The Cirencester cockerel is unique among the eight because it still has its openwork tail, and it is the only one from Britain to have been found in a grave. The two- or three-year-old child had been buried in a wooden coffin wearing hobnail shoes, accompanied by the cockerel and a pottery feeding cup called a “tettine.” In the Roman world, cockerels were linked to the cult of Mercury, a messenger to the gods who accompanied the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife. The figurine may have been placed in the child’s coffin to ensure a safe journey.

Pulque Detected in Pottery from Teotihuacan

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Scientists ground up more than 300 pottery sherds from Mexico’s ancient city of Teotihuacan, then scanned the resulting powder for traces of food or drink that the unglazed ceramic might have absorbed. In particular, they looked for the alcohol-making bacterium Zymomonas mobilis, which is necessary for the creation of pulque, a milky drink made from the sap of the agave plant. Pulque could have provided the people of Teotihuacan with needed calories, essential nutrients, and probiotic bacteria during times of drought. The researchers found direct chemical evidence for the making of pulque on 14 of the sherds. “This project pushed the detection limits of absorbed organic residue analysis,” archaeological chemist Marisol Correa-Ascencio of the University of Bristol told Live Science.

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Monday, September 15

Scientists Consider the Role of Water in Human Evolution

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Freshwater springs fed with groundwater may have been key to the survival and evolution of human ancestors, according to a new study of geological evidence from the Olduvai Basin in northern Tanzania. “A major unknown connected with human evolution in this climatically turbulent environment is the availability of resources, particularly fresh water,” Mark Cuthbert of the University of New South Wales and the University of Birmingham told Science Daily. Geologic evidence suggests that the springs in the region were active some 1.8 million years ago, a critical period in human evolution, and a period when climate fluctuations could have dried up rivers and lakes. “As surface water sources became more scarce during a given climate cycle, the only species to survive may have been those with adaptations for sufficient mobility to discover a new and more persistent groundwater source, or those already settled within home range of such a resource,” added Gail Ashley of Rutgers University.   

Roman Fort Uncovered at Strategic Location in Germany

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—Archaeologists from Frankfurt University have discovered a first-century Roman fort in southern Germany, on the east bank of the Rhine River. When the 500 soldiers of the fort's cohort abandoned the site, they dismantled it and filled in its two V-shaped ditches, leaving behind a lot of well-preserved waste. “We filled box after box with shards of fine, coarse and transport ceramics; dating them will allow us to determine when the fort was abandoned with greater accuracy than was possible before,” Hans-Markus von Kaenel of the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology told Science Daily. The team also uncovered the post holes of a wooden defensive tower. Roman finds in the area suggested that there had been a Roman settlement in Gernsheim from the first to the third centuries. “We really hit the jackpot with this excavation campaign. The results are a milestone in reconstructing the history of the Hessian state during Roman times,” he added. To read about the discovery of a Roman military camp in Germany dating to Julius Caesar's time, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Caesar’s Gallic Outpost."  

Massive Stone Monument Stands Alone in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Ido Wachtel of Hebrew University says that the giant crescent-shaped structure located eight miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee isn’t a city wall, as had been previously thought, but a lone monument. Instead, he suggests that the monument may be linked to the ancient town known as Bet Yerah, which is located about 18 miles or a day’s walk away. That is too far for the wall to have served as an effective fortification, but perhaps the monument served another purpose. “The proposed interpretation for the site is that it constituted a prominent landmark in its natural landscape, serving to mark possession and to assert authority and rights over natural resources by a local rural or pastoral population,” Wachtel explained to Live Science. The 5,000-year-old structure is approximately 492 feet long, and survives to a height of 23 feet. Two other megalithic structures in the area may also be linked to Bet Yerah. One has been found at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee; the other, located to the east of the Sea of Galilee, consists of four circles with a cairn at the center. To read about the excavation of an enormous double mound in Israel's Upper Galilee region, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature "Excavating Tel Kedesh."    

Friday, September 12

Tomb of First Emperor’s Grandmother Unearthed in China

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—A tomb complex said to be the second largest in China was uncovered during the expansion of the Xi’an University of Finance and Economics. International Business Times reports that inscribed pottery and artifacts of jade, gold, and silver suggest that the tomb was built by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, for his grandmother, although a sarcophagus has not been found yet. The tomb also contained two carriages and the skeletons of 12 horses. Such carriages, pulled by six horses, were a symbol of royal rank. 

Do You Have Snippets of the Star-Spangled Banner?

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Smithsonian Institution is collecting the missing bits of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the huge American flag that was raised over Fort McHenry after the retreat of the British in 1814. (The flag is best known as the inspiration for the poem by Francis Scott Key that became the national anthem.) The pieces were snipped off the flag by its various keepers and given away as keepsakes until about 20 percent of the flag was missing by the 1880s. “It was such a monumental moment in time that people felt they wanted to hold a piece of that history,” Jennifer Jones of the National Museum of American History explained to The Associated Press. So far, 17 pieces have been recovered and analyzed to see if their weaves, stains, and soils match the original. There are no plans to attempt to reassemble the flag, but some of the pieces may be loaned to other museums. Unless, of course, the missing 15th star is recovered. “We’d love to have that back. That one I might put back on,” said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the flag’s chief conservator. 

3,000-Year-Old Short Sword Found in China

NANJING, CHINA—Eleven-year-old Yang Junxi was playing near the Laozhoulin River in east China’s Jiangsu Province when he found a bronze sword in the sediments. His father contacted the Gaoyou Cultural Relics Bureau where it was identified as a 3,000-year-old artifact from the time of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. “The short sword seems a status symbol of a civil official. It has both decorative and practical functions, but is not in the shape of a sword for military officers,” Lyu Zhiwei, head of the bureau, told Xinhua News. The river had been recently dredged, which may have brought the artifact to the surface. Archaeological investigation of the river and surrounding area is planned.

Bodies of Caryatids From the Amphipolis Tomb Revealed

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Ekathimerini reports that archaeologists have removed the dirt from the bodies of the two caryatids discovered at the entrance to one of the chambers in the vast Amphipolis tomb. Greece’s Culture Ministry announced that the 2,300-year-old statues are of “exceptional artistic quality.” The life-sized statues depict women with thick hair dressed in semi-transparent robes. Less than half of the barrel-vaulted tomb has been unearthed so far. To read more about the sculptures, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Caryatids Uncovered in Amphipolis Tomb."