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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, December 05

Bronze-Age Bone Objects Discovered in Cremated Remains

DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN—Isle of Man News reports that Michelle Gamble of the Manx Museum discovered a collection of small bone objects while reassessing a box of cremated human remains excavated from a cist tomb in 1947. The stone-lined grave contained 4,000-year-old burned bone fragments, two flint tools, and two pots. The bones are thought to have come from four skeletons mixed together, including two adults, one of which was male, an adolescent, and an infant. Gamble explained that the bone objects were burned as well and mixed in with the cremated human remains. One of the objects was a bone pommel for a bronze knife—the first to be found on the Isle of Man. The other objects include a bone point or pin that may have been attached to clothing or a head covering. Gamble and her team are still examining what may be bone beads and worked bone strips. The bone items may have been worn by the dead, or placed on the funeral pyre by the mourners. The researchers have not been able to determine whether all four burials took place at the same time. For more, go to “Artifact: Bronze Age Dagger.”

Evidence of Malaria Parasites Found in Ancient Roman Teeth

HAMILTON, CANADA—The International Business Times reports that genetic evidence for the presence of malaria in the ancient world has been found in human teeth. Historical sources describe fevers in ancient Greece and Rome, but the specific disease that caused them has been unknown. A team of researchers led by geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Center examined mitochondrial DNA obtained from the teeth of 58 adults and ten children who had been buried in three different cemeteries in Italy between the first and third centuries A.D. They found genetic evidence of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite transmitted by mosquitoes that causes malaria, in teeth from two individuals. Plasmodium falciparum is the most common species of malaria parasite that infects people in sub-Saharan Africa—and the most deadly. Scholars now want to know how widespread the parasite was in the ancient world. The new evidence also provides scientists with more information about how the disease has evolved. For more, go to “Vikings, Worms, and Emphysema.”

Island Monastery May Be Britain’s First

SOMERSET, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that radiocarbon dating of human remains unearthed earlier this year at Beckery Chapel revealed that they date to the fifth or early sixth century A.D. “It’s the earliest archaeological evidence we’ve got for monasticism,” said Richard Brunning of the South West Heritage Trust. The wattle-and daub monastery buildings stood on a small island near the future site of Glastonbury Abbey, which dates to the seventh century. In the 1960s, an excavation at Beckery Chapel unearthed 50 to 60 skeletons. Most of the burials contained the remains of adult males, but the bones of two young men, perhaps novice monks, and a woman’s skeleton, thought to have been a visitor, were also found. Further analysis of the bones could reveal whether the monks were locals, or whether they traveled to region to join the monastery. Burials at the cemetery are thought to have stopped in the early ninth century, when the Vikings attacked southwest England. For more, go to “Legends of Glastonbury Abbey.”


More Headlines
Friday, December 02

Dutch Authorities Return Sculpture to Italy

ROME, ITALY—The Associated Press reports that Dutch police returned a second-century marble sculpture of the Roman empress Giulia Domna to Italian authorities at a ceremony in Amsterdam. The 12-inch head is thought to have been plundered from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli in 2012. Two people have been charged with the theft and with trying to sell the sculpture at an auction in Amsterdam. Carabinieri Major Massimo Maresca said that the auction house alerted Italian authorities. For more, go to “Rome's Imperial Port.”

Roman Ruler of Judea Named in 1,900-Year-Old Inscription

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The Times of Israel reports that the name of a Roman ruler of Judea has been found in a 1,900-year-old inscription by scholars from the University of Haifa. Gargilius Antiques is now thought to have ruled over Judea in the years prior to the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, which was fought between 132 and 136 A.D. The seven-line inscription, carved on a 1,300-pound rock, was found underwater at the site of Tel Dor, an ancient port city on the Mediterranean Sea. The rock may have been a statue base. “This is ... just the second time that the mention of Judea has been discovered in inscriptions traced back to the Roman era,” noted Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University. To read more about underwater archaeology in Israel, go to “Sun and Moon.”

2,000-Year-Old Pet Cemetery Unearthed in Egypt

NEWARK, DELAWARE—USA Today reports that a 2,000-year-old pet cemetery has been discovered near a trash heap at the archaeological site of Berenike, a remote Roman port town on the Red Sea. The remains of dogs, monkeys, and cats have been unearthed. Some of the carcasses had been carefully placed under mats or jars. A few of them were wearing iron collars, some of which were decorated with ostrich-shell beads. Marta Osypińska of the Polish Academy of Sciences notes that the necks of the cats were not twisted, as the necks of cats mummified for ritual reasons often were. The remains of a mastiff-like dog suffering from bone cancer was found to have eaten a final meal of fish and goat, before its body was wrapped in a basket and covered with pieces of pottery. The dog is thought to have been imported from Greece or Rome, and was “a very loved animal,” said Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware. “What makes this unique is (despite) the very rough circumstances in which these people are living, they still manage to find the time and effort to have companion animals with them,” he said. For more, go to “Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt.”

U.S. Repatriates Artifacts to Egypt

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Five artifacts seized by federal agents have been handed over to Egyptian officials in a ceremony at the Egyptian embassy in Washington D.C. by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a report from ABC News. The objects, including a child’s wooden sarcophagus, a mummy shroud, and a mummified hand, were recovered during investigations based in New York and Los Angeles. Dubbed “Operation Mummy’s Curse” and “Operation Mummy’s Hand,” the investigations uncovered a network of smugglers, importers, money launderers, restorers, and purchasers. The agents traced the artifacts and money to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Iraq, France, and other nations. Yasser Reda, Egyptian ambassador to the United States, praised the agents for their efforts, saying that their work is essential to the preservation of the world's ancient cultures. For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Thursday, December 01

Where Did “Lucy” Spend Her Time?

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—A report in The Washington Post suggests that the early human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, which had hips, feet, and legs suitable for walking, and ape-like long arms with curved fingers, probably spent a significant amount of time in trees. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and his colleagues compared X-ray microtomography scans of Lucy, the 3.18-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil specimen, with scans of the arm and leg bones of modern chimpanzees and modern humans. The results indicate that Lucy’s arms were not as strong as a chimp’s, but were significantly stronger than those of a modern human. “If she evolved from a more arboreal ancestor, she may just not have had the time yet to evolve a shorter upper limb,” Ruff said. “We have to look at traits that changed during her life depending on how she used that part of her skeleton—that’s real evidence of what someone was actually doing.” He thinks that Australopithecus afarensis may have climbed trees at night to find a safe place to sleep. But critics note that Lucy lacked a climber’s opposable big toe, and suggest that there could be other explanations for her arm strength. For more on members of the Australopithecus genus, go to “The Human Mosaic.”

Temple Dedicated to Wind God Found in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—A circular platform unearthed at a construction site in Mexico City was part of a temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind, according to a report in The Guardian. The white stucco temple, built by the Mexica-Tlatelolca people some 650 years ago, was round on three sides, had a rectangular platform on the fourth, and was located within a large ceremonial site in the ancient city of Tlatelolco. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History also uncovered bird bones, obsidian, maguey cactus spines, ceramic figurines of monkeys and duck bills, and the remains of an infant at the temple site, which will be preserved within the new construction. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Lumps of Bitumen Identified in Sutton Hoo Boat Burial

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a team of scientists from the British Museum and the University of Aberdeen analyzed lumps of organic material found in the boat burial at Sutton Hoo. Excavated in 1939 in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the East of England, the lavish, seventh-century boat burial contained a ceremonial helmet, a shield and sword, and gold and gemstone dress fittings. It had been thought that the lumps were pine tar, which is made from trees and can be used for boat maintenance. The study revealed, however, that the lumps are bitumen, a petroleum product. Chemical fossils within the samples “show this material comes from the Dead Sea family of bitumens, perhaps sourced in Syria,” explained Stephen Bowden of the University of Aberdeen. The bitumen pieces were probably obtained through the extensive Anglo-Saxon trade network, and may have been part of another object that has not survived. For more on archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon period, go to “The Kings of Kent.”