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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, May 27

Wet Weather May Have Pushed Mongols Out of Hungary

ZÜRICH, SWITZERLAND—Spring flooding may have pushed the invading Mongols out of Hungary in 1242, according to a study of Eastern European climate history conducted by Nicola Di Cosmo of Princeton University and Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. Tree-ring data from northern Scandinavia, the Polar Ural, the Romanian Carpathians, the Austrian Alps, and the Russian Altai suggests that in 1242, southern Poland, the Czech Republic, western Slovakia, northwestern Hungary, and eastern Austria experienced a cold and snowy winter that was followed by an exceptionally wet spring. Di Cosmo told Live Science that the Mongol commanders, who had brought at least 130,000 troops and perhaps 65,000 horses into the region, might have been bogged down in pastures that had turned into muddy marshes. That could account for their sudden retreat through the Carpathian foothills and other elevated areas. “This is one of the very few cases in which we can identify a minor climatic change on just one winter and link it to a particularly important historical event,” Di Cosmo explained. For more, go to "Mongol Fashion Statement."

People Could Have Pulled Bluestones to Stonehenge

LONDON, ENGLAND—University College London archaeology student Barney Harris and a team of volunteers attempted to drag a 1.1-ton bluestone, lashed to a sycamore sleigh, on a track made of silver birch logs. Their goal was to see how much effort might have been required for Neolithic Britons to move bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales to Stonehenge. Harris thought it would take at least 15 people to transport the heavy load, but he found that ten people were able to pull the stone some ten feet every five seconds, or potentially faster than one mile per hour. The experiment suggests that a group of just 20 Neolithic Britons may have been able to convey a two-ton bluestone over the 140 mile trip. “It’s true that we did the experiment on flat ground, and there would have been steep slopes to navigate when going through the Preseli Mountains, but actually this kind of system works well on rough terrain,” Harris said in a report in The Telegraph. Harris and his team will take the data from the experiment and calculate how long it might have taken to move all of the bluestones to Stonehenge. For more, go to "Quarrying Stonehenge."

Paleolithic Paintings Found in Northern Spain

ATXURRA, SPAIN—The Local reports that archaeologist Diego Garate has found at least 70 paintings of bison, horses, and goats in Spain’s Atxurra caves at a depth of nearly 1,000 feet. Garate says the hunting scenes, spread over 14 panels, are between 12,000 and 14,000 years old. “I have been searching the caves of the Basque Country for ten years and have discovered lots of new caves but none as important as Atxurra,” he said. “It could very well be the cave with the most animal figures in the Basque Country.” One of the images is thought to depict a bison pierced by more than 20 spears. Charcoal and flint tools have also been found in the caves. For more, go to "The First Artists."

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Thursday, May 26

Phoenician DNA Sequenced

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA—Scientists have completely mapped the genome of the "Young Man of Byrsa,” a Phoenician who lived 2,500 years ago, and whose remains were discovered outside Carthage in 1994, reports the Independent. The Phoenicians were an influential seafaring people who originated in Lebanon around 1500 B.C. and then colonized much of the Mediterranean, including what is now Tunisia, where they founded Carthage. The team, co-led by University of Otago geneticist Lisa Matisoo-Smith, found that the man had a rare mitochondrial haplogroup that is thought to have originated 20,000 to 25,000 years ago among European hunter-gatherer populations. His DNA most closely matched that of a modern-day Portuguese person, and the researchers speculate that the Young Man of Byrsa's maternal ancestry lay somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula, not in North Africa or the Near East, as might have been expected. The team hopes further research on Phoenician DNA will reveal more about ancient migration and exchange patterns. To read more about Phoenicians, go to “History’s 10 Greatest Wrecks: Bajo de la Campagna.” 

Neanderthal Structures in French Cave Studied

AVEYRON VALLEY, FRANCE—A number of semicircular walls built from stalagmites by Neanderthals deep in a cave in southwestern France have been dated to around 176,000 years old, making them among the world’s oldest constructions, according to a report in Nature News. The six structures, first discovered in Bruniquel Cave in the early 1990s, are made of around 400 large stalagmite pieces broken from the cave floor and arranged in semi-circles as large as 22 feet wide. They lie around a fifth of a mile from the cave’s entrance and getting to them requires navigating a narrow approach. Researchers believe that at one time the pieces were stacked up to create walls. “It’s obvious when you see it, that it’s not natural,” said Dominique Genty of the Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace. Analysis of calcite that has accumulated on the stalagmites since they were broken established that the structures date to between 174,400 and 178,600 years ago. No remains of early humans, stone tools, or signs of occupation have been found, but researchers have concluded that Neanderthals made the structures as no other hominins are known to have been present in the area at the time. For more, go to “Decoding Neanderthal Genetics.”

Scanning Prehistoric Alpine Art

ABRI FARAVEL, FRANCE—In a small rock shelter in the French Alps some 7,000 feet above sea level, archaeologists have used laser scans to create virtual models of the highest rock art depictions of animals ever discovered in Europe, reports the Yorkshire Post. The shelter was in regular use beginning in the Mesolithic period, about 10,000 years ago, and was at least occasionally occupied up to the medieval period. The team, led by University of York archaeologist Kevin Walsh, has found Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools at the site, along with Iron Age pottery, a Roman-era brooch, and medieval metal objects. Nearby the cave they discovered Bronze Age stone dwellings and animal enclosures. While direct dating of the paintings themselves is impossible, they seem to be analogous to art made during the Neolithic at lower altitudes, and appear to depict a deer hunting scene. In addition to scanning the paintings, the team scanned the shelter itself and the surrounding landscape. “This is the only example of virtual models, including a scan of the art, done at high altitude in the Alps and probably the highest virtual model of an archaeological landscape in Europe,” said Walsh. To read more about scanning archaeological sites, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

19th-Century Ship Found Underground in Boston

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—The remains of a ship were recently discovered underground at a construction site in Boston’s Seaport District. Over the past few days, Boston’s city archaeologist, Joe Bagley, and colleagues have scrambled to learn as much about it as possible before construction resumes. Based on the ship’s nails, they have determined that it dates to the mid-to-late nineteenth century. “It’s not terribly old,” Bagley told Boston.com, “but it’s part of the maritime history of Boston either way.” The area where the approximately 50-foot-long ship was found consisted of mudflats that were filled in 1880 to create more buildable land. It is unclear whether the ship was deliberately sunk or left in place after crashing or running aground. There is evidence of a fire on board, though it could have occurred while the ship sank or later, to reduce the size of the wreckage. Inside the ship, the archaeologists have found dozens of barrels of lime, which may have been transported from Maine for use in concrete or to make paper. To read in-depth about a ship found underground in Manhattan, go to “The Hidden History of New York's Harbor.”

Wednesday, May 25

Female Mummy Found in Egypt’s Tombs of the Nobles

ASWAN, EGYPT—The mummy of an important woman named Sachiny from ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom has been discovered, according to a report in Egypt Independent. A team headed by archaeologist Alejandro Jimenez found the mummy in a two-layer cedar coffin during an excavation at the Tombs of the Nobles, west of Aswan in southern Egypt. The coffins had hieroglyphic inscriptions that helped identify the mummy. In addition, the inner coffin’s wood was in good condition, allowing it to be dated. Sachiny, who lived during the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1755 B.C.), was part of a royal family. The Tomb of the Nobles also includes tombs of the governors of Aswan from ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms. To read about another recent discovery, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Roman Necropolis Discovered in Croatia

  TROGIR, CROATIA—Workers expanding a private parking lot in the coastal Croatian town of Trogir inadvertently unearthed a number of Roman-era graves, reports Total Croatia News. Upon learning of the discovery, the parking lot's owner halted work and contacted the staff of the local Trogir Museum. Archaeologists then found four stone urns and up to 18 tombstones left intact in the necropolis, which was located near a former Roman road that led from the city, then known as Tragurium, to the surrounding countryside. Dating to the first century A.D., the burials probably belonged to members of the upper class, as suggested by the discovery of grave goods such as a glass perfume bottle and a bronze needle. The team expects to find more burials as they continue to work at the site. To read in-depth about Roman archaeology, go to “Rome’s Imperial Port.” 

Artifacts Spanning Three Centuries Unearthed in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—More than 80,000 artifacts at the site of the former visitors center at Independence National Historic Park have been unearthed in excavations over the past three years, according to a report in Philly Voice. The excavations, which were carried out by archaeologists from Commonwealth Heritage Group, have turned up unusually thorough evidence of the development of Philadelphia over three centuries. "Cities change; cities are so dynamic," said archaeologist Rebecca Yamin. "On this site we have captured that change.” Their findings include evidence of eighteenth-century taverns, nineteenth-century print shops, and a twentieth-century button factory. One standout find is an eighteenth-century punchbowl that depicts the Triphena, a brigantine ship that carried a message to Great Britain in an attempt to foment opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed some of the taxes that led to the American Revolution. Other artifacts found at the site include wig curlers, marbles, lead weights, and window glass with people’s names etched into it. For more, go to “Letter from Philadelphia: City Garden.”

Sustainable Prehistoric Oyster Harvests

CHESAPEAKE BAY, MARYLAND—A team led by Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Torben Rick has found that prehistoric Native Americans in Chesapeake Bay used sustainable methods to harvest oysters. The group studied a series of prehistoric shell mounds in the area, expecting to find that the size of oysters would decrease over time as they were harvested more intensively. But while they found size did fluctuate through the centuries, there was no evidence for an overall decline in shell size from about 3,500 to 400 years ago. “Archaeologists all over the world have documented size declines where indigenous peoples were intensively harvesting shellfish,” Rick told the Bay Journal. “We didn’t find that at all.” Rick hopes that study of the prehistoric oyster fishery might help inform efforts to rebuild the modern oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, which is just one percent of what it was a hundred years ago. For more about how prehistoric North Americans managed coastal resources, go to “The Edible Landscape.” 

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