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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, October 24

17th-Century Vaults Unearthed in 13th-Century Irish Church

CORK, IRELAND—Subsidence in the aisle at St. Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal, a prosperous medieval port town, has led to the discovery of three burial vaults dating to the seventeenth century. The church, which was built in 1250, is the oldest continuously used church in Ireland. “We have unearthed some pottery and coins from the seventeenth century and a fabulous underground central heating system which was modelled on the Roman aqua duct system. It dates to the eighteenth century and boiling water was poured in to provide the heating,” archaeologist Caroline Desmond told The Irish Examiner. Desmond and her team will stabilize the area where they have been working and continue the investigation next year because the church’s annals indicate that another five tombs remain to be found under the aisle. “We will undoubtedly find more archaeology there. The roof of the church is still the original and it was built by French carpenters. That also goes to show that Youghal was a very prosperous town at the time as the merchants were able to pay to bring in skilled labor from abroad,” she explained. 

Dental Health in Roman Britain Studied

LONDON, ENGLAND—Only five percent of Roman Britons had severe gum disease, despite the prevalence of infections, abscesses, and tooth decay in their smiles, according to a study conducted by a team made of researchers from King’s College London and London’s Natural History Museum. They examined 303 skulls recovered from a cemetery in Dorset. Most of these people had died in their 40s sometime between 200 and 400 A.D. “The amount of severe gum disease around today is around one third of the population. But much to our surprise these people didn’t have a lot of gum disease, but they did have a lot of other dental problems,” Francis Hughes of the dental institute at King’s College London told BBC News. Wear and tear from abrasive grains and cereals in the pre-toothbrush age probably contributed to longstanding infections and chronic pain. “This study shows a major deterioration in oral health between Roman times and modern England. By underlining the probable role of smoking, especially in determining the susceptibility to progressive periodontitis in modern populations, there is a real sign that the disease can be avoided,” added Theya Molleson of the Natural History Museum.  For more on the study of dental health, see "The Virtues of Stone Age Dentistry." 

Ancient Burial Mounds Looted in Denmark

GRINDSTED, DENMARK—Police are investigating the destruction of four ancient burial sites in southeast Jutland, according to a report in The Copenhagen Post. The protected graves were estimated to be 4,000 years old. Similar burials have contained stone axes, jewelry, and pottery. This is the first time graves in Denmark have been plundered since the end of the 1890s. “The things we could have learned from the burial mounds have now been erased from history. We can no longer investigate how ancient life was in this area of Jutland,” said archaeologist Lars Bjarke Christensen of the country’s culture ministry. 

Golden Horde City Excavated in Russia

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—A thirteenth-century city founded by Batu Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan, is being excavated in Russia. Located along the Volga River, this prosperous city, known as Ukek, was part of the Golden Horde kingdom, which controlled many of the Silk Road trade routes connecting China and Europe. Christianity, Islam, and Shamanism were all practiced in Ukek. Archaeologists from the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore are currently excavating two temples in the city’s Christian quarter. The earlier temple had a tile roof and was decorated inside and out with murals and stone carvings. “Some items belonging to the local elite were found in the Christian district. Among other things, there is a Chinese glass hair pin, with a head shaped as a split pomegranate, and a fragment of a bone plate with a carved dragon image,” archaeologist Dmitriy Kubankin told Live Science. Goods such as imported fine plates and bottles were found stored the temple’s basement. When that temple was destroyed, a second was built with stone walls and a tile roof. The city was eventually conquered by Tamerlane in 1395. Kubankin presented his team’s findings at the recent meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists. To read about the excavation of medieval fortifications in Siberia, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Fortress of Solitude."

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Thursday, October 23

Rapa Nui Genes Suggest Pre-Columbian Voyage

OSLO, NORWAY—Evidence for contact between Polynesians from Easter Island and South Americans sometime before 1500 A.D. has been found in the genomes of 27 living Rapa Nui islanders, according to a report in Science. European and Native American DNA patterns were found in the modern Rapa Nui genomes. The Native American DNA patterns accounted for about eight percent of the Rapa Nui genomes, and they were broken up and scattered, suggesting that genetic recombination had been at work on the material for some time. The relatively intact sections of European genetic patterns were unevenly spread among the population. This suggests that European genes were introduced relatively recently, perhaps when explorers settled on the island in the nineteenth century. “Our studies strongly suggest that Native Americans most probably arrived [on Rapa Nui] shortly after the Polynesians,” said Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo. But other scientists think that Pacific currents make it more likely that Polynesians sailed to South America, where they obtained sweet potatoes, chickens, and South American women before they returned home. For more on possible contacts between Polynesia and South America, see "Polynesian Chickens in Chile."

Massive 6,000-Year-Old Temple Unearthed in Ukraine

KIEV, UKRAINE—Tech Times reports that the remains of a two-story building surrounded by a galleried courtyard have been found in a prehistoric settlement of more than 1,200 buildings near Nebelivka. The 6,000-year-old building, whose upper floor had been divided into five rooms decorated with red paint, is thought to have been a temple of the Trypillian culture, and contained fragments of human figurines. Eight clay platforms that may have been used as altars were also discovered, including one on the upper floor that contained “numerous burnt bones of lamb, associated with sacrifice,” Nataliya Burdo and Mykhailo Videiko of the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, wrote in a paper that they presented at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul. Pottery fragments and animal bones were also found in the courtyard. Small ornaments of bone and gold may have been worn in the hair. To hear a prehistoric language that may have been spoken in Ukraine around this time, see "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European."

Archaeologists Survey Everglades Site

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA—National Park Service archaeologists are looking for prehistoric artifacts in an area of Everglades National Park that is slated for restoration and a new boardwalk. When the Anhinga Slough was dredged in 1968 after a record drought, park rangers collected hundreds of artifacts, but the site was never excavated. “It’s unique in the sense that it’s a submerged site. We don’t have very many of those in Florida and in this area at all. That’s why it’s special,” Penny Del Bene, chief of cultural resources, told Phys.org. So far scientists have recovered burnt wood, bone fragments, and shells for study.

45,000-Year-Old Genome of Modern Human Sequenced

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—The complete genome of a very ancient modern human has been sequenced by Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “It’s almost twice as old as the next oldest genome that has been sequenced,” Pääbo told NPR. The 45,000-year-old DNA was obtained from cells collected from the center of a femur discovered near the Irtysh River in western Siberia. The analysis shows that the man had long Neanderthal gene sequences, indicating that he’d had Neanderthal ancestors who lived between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. “They actually mixed with each other and did have children,” Pääbo said. For more on Pääbo's work, see "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."

Wednesday, October 22

World War II Battlefield Found Off the Coast of North Carolina

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have located the wreckage of the German U-boat 576 and the freighter Bluefields, which sank some 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina on July 15, 1942. All aboard Bluefields were rescued, but the crew of U-576 was lost, making the site a war grave. “We have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic. These two ships rest only a few hundred yards apart and together help us interpret and share their forgotten stories,” announced Joe Hoyt, a NOAA sanctuary scientist. Bluefields was part of a group of 19 merchant ships that was traveling to Key West, Florida, when attacked by the U-576. U.S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft, which provided the convoy’s air cover, bombed the submarine while another merchant ship attacked it with its deck gun. “Most people associate the Battle of the Atlantic with the cold, icy waters of the North Atlantic. But few people realize how close the war actually came to America’s shores. As we learn more about the underwater battlefield, Bluefields and U-576 will provide additional insight into a relatively little-known chapter in American history,” said David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. 

Early European Farmers Remained Lactose Intolerant

DUBLIN, IRELAND—Nuclear DNA analysis of 13 individuals suggests that early farmers in central Europe remained lactose intolerant for more than 5,000 years after they domesticated animals. “Our findings show progression toward lighter skin pigmentation as hunter and gatherers and non-local farmers intermarried, but surprisingly no presence of increased lactose persistence or tolerance to lactose,” announced Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin. Early farmers probably relied upon fermented cheese and yogurt from their cows, goats, and sheep, rather than drinking their hard-to-digest raw milk. “Our results also imply that the great changes in prehistoric technology including the adoption of farming, followed by the first use of the hard metals, bronze and then iron, were each associated with the substantial influx of new people,” added Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin. The DNA samples were obtained from the inner ear region of the petrous bone in the skull, which is very dense and well protected from contamination and damage. To read more about the prehistoric genetic history of Europe, see "Genetic Study Reveals Third Group of European Ancestors."

Inscription Dedicated to Hadrian Unearthed in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A Latin inscription on a large fragment of a lintel from an arch built to welcome Emperor Hadrian to Jerusalem in 130 A.D. could shed light on the causes of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The stone, erected by Hadrian’s Tenth Roman legion, was discovered in a cistern near Jerusalem’s Old City, where it had been recycled by the Byzantines as a paving stone. “This is another (part in the puzzle) in the historical mystery of what preceded what: the revolt of Bar Kochba or the foundation of the establishment of a city on top of the ruins of Jerusalem named ‘Aelia Capitolina’ and the change of status of Jerusalem to a Roman colony,” archaeologist Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Reuters. The stone places the Tenth Legion in Jerusalem during the period between the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 70 and the Bar Kochba rebellion. The other half of the inscription was unearthed in the nineteenth century by French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau. “The inscription itself might have set in the top of a free-standing triumphal arch on the city’s northern boundary such as the Arch of Titus in Rome,” Avner explained. To read about a remarkable cache of jewlery dating to the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Top 10 Discoveries of 2012."

Sphinx’s Head Discovered in Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—The missing head of one of the sphinxes guarding the entrance to the Macedonian tomb at Amphipolis has been found in the structure’s third chamber. The marble head, adorned with curly hair, is intact except for some damage to its nose. Traces of red paint have been found on the hair, which was tied with a white stripe. Fragments of the statue’s wings were also recovered, according to The Greek Reporter. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's tomb, see "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."