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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, June 23

Scientists Recreate Ancient Bitumen-Lined Water Bottles

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—Gizmodo reports that as early as 5,000 years ago, people living in California’s Channel Islands waterproofed baskets with bitumen to create water bottles. An international team of scientists followed oral tradition to replicate the processes to make two such vessels. One bottle basket was lined with soft bitumen, known as “malak,” which seeps up from the ocean floor and washes ashore. A second was lined with hard bitumen, known as “woqo,” which is found on land. While they worked, the scientists sampled the air using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. They also measured the level of chemicals in the water stored in the bottles. “Bitumen is composed of chemicals that have been linked to a variety of adverse human health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental impairments, and decreased fetal length and head size,” explained team leader Sabrina Sholts of the Smithsonian Institution. The researchers found that the fumes produced by the melted bitumen were toxic, but the water stored in the bottles would probably not have caused health problems. However, bitumen was also used to waterproof boats, tools, and other food-storage items, which would have increased exposure and may have contributed to illness. For more on bitumen in the archaeological record, go to “Something New for Sutton Hoo.”

Viking Age Pit May Have Been Rural Privy

VORDINGBORG, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports that archaeologists looking for pit houses on the southeast coast of the island of Zealand discovered what may be a Viking Age privy. The pit contained a layer of sediment containing a high concentration of fly pupae and pollen typically found in honey or mead. A lack of airborne pollen indicates that the hole had been covered. “We know about privy buildings inside cities in the latter part of the Viking Age and the early Middle Ages, but not from agrarian settlements and farms,” said Anna Beck of the Museum of Southeast Denmark. Researchers had assumed that people used their waste, along with that of their animals, to fertilize their fields. Beck suggests that many pits found in excavations at rural Viking sites may actually be privies that were overlooked because the human waste had decomposed, which is not always the case in urban privies. Beck also found two postholes on either side of the pit that may have been part of a small building. Critics of the idea think the waste could have landed in the hole through other means. For more, go to “Hoards of the Vikings.”

Ancient Graffiti on Egyptian Tomb Walls Studied

WARSAW, POLAND—Adam Łukaszewicz of the University of Warsaw and his team have completed a 3-D record of the walls of the tomb of Ramesses VI, in order to study the graffiti left by tourists some 2,000 years ago, according to a report in Science & Scholarship in Poland. The researchers found more than 1,000 inscriptions in the tomb, which is just one of at least ten of the 60 tombs in the Valley of the Kings marked with ancient travelers’ names and comments. Most of the inscriptions were carved into the rock or made with red paint. “The greatest number of inscriptions come from the Greek-Roman period, that is, from the time of the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great to the division of the Roman Empire in the fourth century,” Łukaszewicz said. Łukaszewicz  notes that most of the visitors, some of whom were high-ranking officials, tried to avoid writing on the Egyptian decorations on the walls. The scientists will use their digital records to continue to study the inscriptions. For more, go to “Egypt’s Final Redoubt in Canaan.”

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Thursday, June 22

Stone Floor and Ritual Vessel Uncovered at Machu Picchu

CUSCO, PERU—Living in Peru reports that a stone floor and a fragmented vessel that may have been used to make offerings were discovered at Machu Picchu Archaeological Park by archaeologist José Bastante and researchers from Peru’s Ministry of Culture. They found the floor and the vessel in a passage behind the room where the so-called “water mirrors” are located. The water mirrors, circular basins on the floor of the main area, are thought to have been used to observe the reflected night sky. Likewise, light from solstices and equinoxes is thought to have shone through a central window in the passage to the water mirrors next door. Bastante said the vessel probably had a pointed base, may have been burned after the offering was made. The vessel is thought to date to the fifteenth century and will be tested for any residues of its contents. For more, go to “Letter From Peru: Connecting Two Realms.”

Woven Basket and Wooden Stand Unearthed in Japan

NARA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—According to a report in The Asahi Shimbun, scientists have discovered a possible use for small wooden frames, shaped like truncated square pyramids, which have been unearthed at archaeological sites around Japan. It had been suggested that the wooden frames could have been used for catching fish or even as funnels. Archaeologists working at a circular tomb site in the city of Kashihara, however, found one of the wooden frames supporting a finely woven, square-bottomed basket. “I imagine it was used to transport or store something precious,” said Yuka Sasaki, a visiting researcher of archaeobotany at the Center for Obsidian and Lithic Studies at Meiji University. Made from four pieces of wood from a chinquapin tree, the stand was held together with plant material. The basket, woven from a kind of bamboo grass, was attached to the stand with strings made from plants. This particular basket and stand are thought to have been made by the Yayoi Pottery Culture sometime in the late second century A.D. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Ancient Dugout Canoe Found in Louisiana

BELCHER, LOUISIANA—KTBS News reports that a woman looking for artifacts along the Red River in northwestern Louisiana spotted a dugout canoe in the mud of the riverbank. Jeffrey Girard of the Louisiana Archaeological Society and Robert Chip of the State Archaeological Division excavated the cypress-wood canoe, which is missing one side. What remains measures about 34 feet long and three feet wide, and is thought to have been constructed by the Caddo people between 800 and 1,000 years ago. The vessel will be studied and conserved at Texas A&M University. A sample has been taken for radiocarbon dating. For more on archaeology in Louisiana, go to “Archaic Engineers Worked on a Deadline.”

Predynastic Inscriptions Discovered in Egypt

LUXOR, EGYPT—Inscriptions estimated to be up to 6,000 years old have been found spread over several rock panels located near the village of El-Khawy by a team of researchers from Yale University and Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, according to a report in Ahram Online. The team members had been mapping road networks because Egyptian rock art is usually found at major crossroads. The images are said to represent formative stages of hieroglyphic script, which appeared in Upper Egypt around 3250 B.C. For example, John Coleman Darnell of Yale University said that one panel is engraved with a bull’s head on a short pole, and two saddle bill storks standing back to back with a bald ibis above them. The images were placed from right to left, in a similar fashion as later Egyptian texts. “These symbols are not phonetic writing, but appear to provide the intellectual background for moving from depictions of the natural world to hieroglyphs that wrote the sounds of the ancient Egyptian language,” Darnell said. For more, go to “Egypt’s Final Redoubt in Canaan.”

Wednesday, June 21

Early Twentieth-Century Church Found in Louisiana

SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA—The Shreveport Times reports that the cornerstone, a pillar, and the central aisle of the original St. John’s Church have been uncovered by a team of researchers from the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans and Louisiana State University, Shreveport. Historian Cheryl White compared current and historic city maps and examined old photographs to pinpoint the site of the original church, which was built by the Jesuits in 1902, on what is now private land. “We came within inches of the front door on the first day,” White said. The team also recovered ceramics dating to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, iron hardware, religious items, coins, bottles, and pieces of glass. For more on archaeology in Louisiana, go to “Archaic Engineers Worked on a Deadline.”

Possible Ritual Landscape Detected at Passage Tomb in Wales

ANGLESEY, WALES—Rock art, pottery deposits, flint tools, and a burial cairn were discovered during recent excavations in the area surrounding Bryn Celli Ddu, a 5,000-year-old mound-covered passage tomb in North Wales. According to a report in The Guardian, a ground-penetrating radar survey suggests that the cairn could be part of a larger cemetery located behind the mound. “We know that Bryn Celli Ddu sits in a much more complicated landscape than previously thought,” said archaeologist Seren Griffiths of the University of Central Lancashire. For more, go to “Letter From Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”

Staircase Uncovered at Peru’s El Volcán

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—A team led by Robert Benfer, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, examined a volcano-shaped earthwork in the Nepeña Valley of coastal Peru thought to have been constructed by the Yungas people. Live Science reports that when the researchers dug into the “crater” at the top of the 50-foot mound, known as El Volcán, they found a collapsed stairwell that descended past a layer of adobe bricks to a mud-plaster floor and a fireplace. Charcoal and pieces of shell in the fireplace were radiocarbon dated to between A.D. 1492 and 1602. Benfer thinks the Yungas may have used the earthwork and the fireplace in ceremonies to celebrate four eclipses that occurred in the sixteenth century. The structure itself may have been built much earlier. For more, go to “Letter from Peru: Connecting Two Realms.”

New Dates Obtained for Jerusalem Stone Tower

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—According to a report in Live Science, new dates for a stone tower at Gihon Spring indicate that it was built 1,000 years later than had been previously thought. The tower, situated downhill from Jerusalem, guarded the city’s water supply. The original estimated date for the tower’s construction was based upon the Middle Bronze Age style of pottery and other artifacts at the site. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute of Science and her colleagues examined the base of the tower, and found archaeological layers in the soil beneath its large boulders. Charcoal, seeds, and bones from the middle and lower layers of sediment were radiocarbon dated to about 1700 B.C. But samples in sediments near a large cornerstone yielded dates between 900 and 800 B.C. Boaretto said the new Iron Age date for the massive tower will have repercussions for other attempts to date construction and occupation in ancient Jerusalem. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to “Autumn of the Master Builder.”

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