Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, September 02

English Civil War Mass Grave Identified

DURHAM, UK—Construction work for a new café uncovered the jumbled skeletons of between 17 and 28 male individuals which research now shows are the remains of Scottish soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, according to a press release from Durham University. The battle, one of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War, resulted in perhaps as many as 1,700 prisoners of war dying of malnutrition, disease, and cold on the 100-mile-march from southeastern Scotland to Durham in northeast England. Until now, it hasn’t been known what happened to the bodies of the victims of this forced march, but the new research shows that at least some—and perhaps many more—were buried on the grounds of Durham Castle. “It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now University buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-seventeenth century,” says Richard Annis, a senior archaeologists at Archaeological Services Durham University. To read about a mass grave of Viking-Age soldiers, go to “The First Vikings.”

3D Printer Produces Replica of Iron Age Instrument

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Iron Age artifact discovered in Ireland was originally thought to have been a spear-butt. However, Billy Ó Foghlú, a PhD student at the Australian National University, thought that it might have been part of a musical instrument, so he created a replica based on the object’s exact measurements using a 3D printer. When Ó Foghlú used the object as a horn mouthpiece, he found that it produced a rich, velvety tone. “These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers,” said Ó Foghlú in a press release. “They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture.” Horns dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages have been discovered throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, though according to Ó Foghlú no other mouthpieces are known to have been found in Ireland. To read about sculptures of musicians found in Peru, go to "Artifact."

Neolithic Feast Recreated

PAPHOS, CYPRUS—Live Science reports that University of Edinburgh archaeologists working at the site of Prastio Mesorotsos have built and tested a replica of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic pit oven. Over the course of three years, the team excavated a large stone-lined pit at the site measuring eight feet across and three feet deep that they believed could be an ancient oven. But its size led excavation director Andrew McCarthy to suspect cooking would not be feasible in it. As a test, before they began excavating this summer they dug a pit with similar dimensions near a local restaurant and lined it with the same type of stones used in the Neolithic pit. In a painstaking process, the team managed to cook a feast of goat and pig meat for nearly 200 guests. To read about a similar experiment testing ancient Irish brewing, go to “Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh.” 

New Zealand’s Prehistoric “Wildlife Sanctuaries”

OTAGO, NEW ZEALAND—Researchers using a range of techniques, including radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis, have modeled the population histories of ancient seabirds in New Zealand and found that human hunting had a profound impact on them. According to a University of Otago press release, the study shows that populations of shag seabirds on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island, had a stable population history, while their counterparts on the two other major islands suffered a massive decline in numbers. "There was a loss of more than ninety-nine percent of their population size within 100 years of human arrival,” says University of Otago geneticist Nic Rawlence. “These once heavily-hunted mainland populations now occupy only a fraction of their prehistoric range, having never really recovered.” The human population on Stewart Island dwindled around 1500 A.D., which might help explain why wildlife populations there did not go into decline. While some scholars believe climatic changes were responsible for the die off, the researchers point out that Stewart Island shared the same climate history as New Zealand’s two major islands, and believe the new findings show prehistoric humans shoulder most of the blame. To read about hunting technology among Australia's Aborigines, go to "What's the Point?"

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Tuesday, September 01

Divers Find Missing Military Tanker in Hawaii

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII—A U.S. Naval tanker that served in both World War II and the Korean War has been found in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. “This is a ship that wasn’t a glamourous part of World War II history, but was an important part,” Kelly Keogh, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, told Hawaii News Now. The USNS Mission San Miguel transported fuel for military vessels, and was traveling from Guam to Seattle in 1957 when it hit a reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and sank. The crew survived the incident, but the wreckage, hidden by the reef, was lost. To read more about underwater discoveries, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

More on Artifacts From Jamestown Graves

ITHACA, NEW YORK—Two artifacts recovered from the graves of high-status people buried in the chancel of Virginia’s James Fort church were scanned by Mark Riccio, director of the Cornell Biotechnology Resource Center’s computed tomography scanning facilities. Jamestown Rediscovery senior conservator Michael Lavin and senior staff archaeologist David Givens took a small, sealed silver box and a block of earth containing silver threads to Riccio, who developed protocols to scan the objects. Together, the scientists were able to establish that the block of earth contained silver and silk threads and silver spangles that came from a captain’s sash, leading to the identification of Captain William West. “If you had given me the object, I could interpret the X-ray dataset but I wouldn’t have known enough about the object. But sitting with archaeologists, they could ask specific questions, and working together, we could answer those questions,” Riccio said in a press release. The silver box was examined and sent on to General Electric for even higher energy CT scans, which revealed small bones and a lead ampulla traditionally used for holding blood in a Roman Catholic reliquary. This item is thought to have belonged to Captain Gabriel Archer, whose Catholic parents had refused to join the Anglican Church. Finer scans may reveal an insignia on the ampulla. “But it’s still not clear that it was a Catholic artifact,” Lavin said. For more, go to "Burials of High-Status Leaders Indentified at Jamestown."

Scientists See Four Main Stages of Human Evolution

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—The human body has gone through four main stages of evolution, according to an international team of scientists who studied fossils from the Sima de los Huesos in Spain’s Sierra de Atapuerca. The site of Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” dates back some 430,000 years and contains more human fossils than have been found anywhere else in the world. The researchers then compared the Atapuerca individuals to the rest of the human fossil record and found that they fit into the third stage of evolution, and shared many anatomical features with later Neanderthals. They were relatively tall, with wide, muscular bodies and less brain mass relative to body mass compared to Neanderthals. “This is really interesting since it suggests that the evolutionary process in our genus is largely characterized by stasis (i.e. little to no evolutionary change) in body form for most of our evolutionary history,” Rolf Quam of Binghamton University said in a press release. Such tall, wide, robust walkers seem to have been present in the genus Homo for more than a million years. Taller, lighter, narrower bodies emerged later with modern humans. To read more about Sima de los Huesos, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."

2,500-Year-Old Reused Tomb Discovered in Luxor

LUXOR, EGYPT—The 26th Dynasty tomb of Padibastet, the vizier of Upper Egypt, has been discovered within the tomb of Karabasken, who was ruler of Thebes and the fourth priest of Amun during the 25th Dynasty. The tomb contained paintings and architectural features that had been made especially for Padibastet. The members of the South Assassif Conservation Project expect to learn more as the survey continues and the tomb is excavated and cleaned. “Padibastet could be buried in a shaft inside the court or in a main burial chamber of Karabasken tomb,” Elena Pischikova, head of the mission, told Ahram Online. To read more about a recently discovered Egyptian burial, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Monday, August 31

Roman Mosaic Conserved

STARA ZAGORA, BULGARIA—Conservators have completed work on a fourth-century A.D. mosaic that was discovered in the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Augusta Traiana in 2011, reports Archaeology in Bulgaria. The mosaic was discovered during rescue excavations, and once decorated a triclinium, or formal dining room. It depicts followers of the god Dionysus during a celebratory procession. On the right is Silenus, the tutor and companion of the god, who leads two dancing women. Local archaeologists describe the work as skillfully done, pointing to the subtle use of color and the depiction of shading in the clothing of the dancing women.The work likely dates to the reign of Emperor Julian Apostate who ruled from A.D. 360 to 363. To read more about Roman-era mosaics, go to “Zeugma After the Flood.” 

Philistines Revolutionized Agriculture in Israel

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL—When the Philistines arrived in Israel, they ushered in an “agricultural revolution,” introducing several new plant species and cultivating a number of native species for the first time, according to a press release from Bar-Ilan University. The Philistines are one of the so-called Sea Peoples mentioned in the Bible and other ancient sources. Analysis of plant remains from Bronze Age and Iron Age sites from the southern Levant has revealed that when the Philistines arrived in Israel in the 12th century B.C., early in the Iron Age, they brought the sycamore tree and cumin, both from the eastern Mediterranean, and the opium poppy, from western Europe. The researchers also found that the Philistines were the first to take advantage of more than 70 species of plants that were already growing in Israel when they arrived, including purslane, wild radish, and saltwort. To read about figurines found at an Iron Age temple near Jerusalem, go to "Artifact."

Siberian Idol is 11,000 Years Old

SVERDLOVSK, RUSSIA—New radiocarbon dates show that a wooden statue discovered in a peat bog in the Ural Mountains in 1894 was made around 11,000 years ago. A German team conducted the testing of the artifact, known as the Shigir Idol, and discovered it is some 1,500 years older than scholars had supposed. “This is extremely important data for the international scientific community,” Thomas Terberger of the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony told the Siberian Times. “It is important for understanding the development of civilization and the art of Eurasia and humanity as a whole.” Carved with a human face, the Shigir Idol stands ten feet tall, and is covered with intricate geometrical symbols, the meaning of which is unknown. To read about another masterpiece of prehistoric art, go to “New Life for Lion Man.” 

Submerged Bronze Age Village Discovered

ATHENS, GREECE—Last year, underwater archaeologists conducting training off a beach near Athens in anticipation of searching for Neolithic sites were surprised to discover the well-preserved remains of a Bronze Age Greek village. Spero News reports that this summer a Greco-Swiss team returned to the settlement and made a thorough survey of the site. Dating to the third millennium B.C., the remains include stone defensive structures that University of Geneva archaeologist Julien Beck says are of a “massive nature, unknown in Greece until now.” The team also recorded paved surfaces that could be streets and three structures that could be the remains of towers. More than 6,000 artifacts have been recovered, including red ceramics and obsidian blades of a type that dates to between 3200 and 2050 B.C. Future work at the site is expected to give researchers a new look at how coastal settlements interacted with one another during the Bronze Age. To read about a massive Minoan site dating this time, go to “The Minoans of Crete.” 

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