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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, November 20

Early Neanderthal Site Endangered

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—The Baker’s Hole site in Kent is known for its 250,000-year-old Neanderthal remains. Francis Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton is working to survey it and examine paleo-environmental remains before the site is lost to erosion, animal burrows, and plant roots. “These biological remains can tell us a lot about the environment early Neanderthals lived in. We can tell if the climate was warm or cold, whether the area was wooded or marshland, and other factors that help us to see the context in which they lived. They can also help date the site accurately,” he said. The new information will help to create a management plan that could ensure the site’s survival. To read about research into Neanderthal diet and technology, see "Neanderthal Medicine Chest."

U.S. Returns Looted Artifacts to Thailand

BANGKOK, THAILAND—The U.S. government has returned hundreds of artifacts to Thailand in a ceremony at the country’s National Museum. The artifacts were recovered from a museum in southern California after a five-year, undercover federal investigation. Many of them had been looted from Ban Chiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the 1970s. “Of the artifacts returned to Thailand, we can say that the 554 pieces, most of them are priceless because they are dated to a prehistoric period,” Vira Rojposhanarat, the kingdom’s culture minister, told Voice of America. Rojpochanarat accepted the artifacts from U.S. Charge D’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy, the highest-ranking American diplomat in the country. 

Ancient Rock Art Discovered Near Sydney

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—A rock art site thought to be tens of thousands of years old has been discovered in Sydney’s north shore area. Images of the ancient artwork have been computer-enhanced to make the natural pigments more visible, and to differentiate them from recently painted images. The hand stencils had been hidden behind vegetation and were found when employees of Sydney Water started looking around after finding a traditional fishing hook. “It was found on the top of the midden site, and quite exposed. We wandered down here and found this. We’d really gone to see the water pool,” Yvonne Kaiserglass, a heritage officer at Sydney Water, told ABC News. The site would have offered shelter, and is near a waterhole that could have provided eels and fish for food. Drawings depict eels, a spearhead, and a crescent-shaped moon. “These are hand stencils, and judging from the size of these, they would have been women and children. So you could imagine they’d be here, resting,” said Col. Davison from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. To see more Australian prehistoric art, see "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

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Wednesday, November 19

Europe’s Bronze Age Collapse Not Caused by Climate Change

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—The colder, wetter conditions that have been blamed for the population collapse in Europe at the end of the Bronze Age occurred two generations later, according to environmental scientists from the University of Bradford, the University of Leeds, University College Cork, and Queen’s University Belfast. The scientists used new statistical techniques to analyze more than 2,000 radiocarbon dates taken from hundreds of archaeological sites in Ireland. Then they compared the data to climate records from peat bogs in Ireland and evidence of climate change across northwest Europe between 1200 and 500 B.C. “Our evidence shows definitively that the population decline in this period cannot have been caused by climate change,” said Ian Armit of the University of Bradford. He thinks social and economic stress, caused by the transition to iron production, and the resulting collapse of copper and tin trade networks, led to conflict and population collapse. “Although climate change was not directly responsible for the collapse it is likely that the poor climatic conditions would have affected farming. This would have been particularly difficult for vulnerable communities, preventing population recovery for several centuries,” Armit said. To read about rituals that may have been practiced by Bronze Age people, see "The Wolf Rites of Winter."

New Research Suggests Neanderthals a Separate Species

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—A new study of the Neanderthal nasal complex suggests that Neanderthals were a distinct species separate from modern humans. Rather than comparing Neanderthal noses to those of modern Europeans and the Inuit, whose nasal complexes are adapted to cold and temperate climates, the scientists, led by Samuel Márquez of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, examined the nasal regions of diverse modern human population groups with 3-D coordinate data and CT imaging. They found that the Neanderthal upper respiratory tracts had a mosaic of features not found among any population of modern humans as a result of a separate evolutionary history. “The strength of this new research lies in its taking the totality of the Neanderthal nasal complex into account, rather than looking at a single feature. By looking at the complete morphological pattern, we can conclude that Neanderthals are our close relatives, but they are not us,” team member Jeffrey T. Laitman of the Icahn School of Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology told Science Daily. To read more about Neanderthal genetics, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Egyptian Tomb-Builders’ Bones Studied

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—The bones of the skilled Egyptian workers who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina show that they worked under grueling conditions in the Valley of the Kings, but written records indicate that they could take a paid sick day or receive a free checkup. Osteoarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University has compared those records to the skeletal evidence to get a better idea of how the tomb-builders lived. She saw the stress of the climb from the village to the Valley of the Kings in the form of arthritis in knees and ankles. In one case, she found evidence in the bones of a blood-borne infection, along with signs that the man continued to work while he was sick. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going,” she said. In another case, the remains of a young man with a disabled leg showed “no signs of other health issues, or of having lived a hard life. That suggests to me that they found a role for him in this community even though the predominant role, of working in the tombs, could not be met.” To read about how workers in the Valley of the Kings kept time, see "Artifact: A 19th-Dynasty Sundial."

Family Stele Unearthed near the Sacred Way

ATHENS, GREECE—According to The Greek Reporter, part of a carved marble grave stele dating to 400 B.C. was unearthed in the Kerameikos area of Athens by a team of scientists from the German Archaeological Institute at Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens. The figures on the stone, which is carved with the name “Dimostratos,” depict a woman sitting with a girl and another woman with a bearded man in the background. Scholars think the stele may have originally been placed in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos near the Sacred Gate, but was reused later as a door sill and then as a sewer cover under the Sacred Way in the sixth century A.D. To read about an eighth-century B.C. funerary stele unearthed in Turkey, see "Kuttamuwa's Soul."

Tuesday, November 18

China’s Terra Cotta Army May Have Been Modeled on Real Soldiers

XIAN, CHINA—Were the 7,000 soldiers of the Terracotta Army modeled after individual soldiers? Archaeologists from the University College London and Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum have used imaging technology to create 3-D models of the left ears of 30 model warriors. Human ear shapes, like fingerprints, are unique enough to identify individuals. Statistical analysis of the measurements of the 3-D ears shows that no two ears in the sample group were exactly the same. “Based on this initial sample, the terra-cotta army looks like a series of portraits of real warriors,” archaeologist Marcos Martinón-Torres of the University College London told National Geographic News. The team members of the project, known as Imperial Logistics: The Making of the Terracotta Army, is now analyzing a larger sample of statue ears and other facial features.

Town Creek Indian Mound Was Once an Active Village

GREENVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA—New excavations at Town Creek Indian Mound by archaeologist Tony Boudreaux of East Carolina University challenge the idea that the site served strictly as a ceremonial center inhabited by priests and visited once a year by local people. “Early on, when the Mississippian community was first founded, there seemed to be a village of at least ten houses, maybe more. There was no mound yet. There were public buildings in the area where the mound would be built,” Boudreaux explained to The News Observer. He suggests that as the residents died, they were buried in the floors of their homes until the area became a cemetery containing the remains of more than 500 people. Eventually the mound and the temple on top of it were constructed. “That’s the place where the ancestors live, where the chief is on the mound performing ceremonial activities that will help keep the universe spinning,” he said. To read about a recent discovery near Cahokia, see "Mississippian Burning."

Ten Unfinished Vases Found in Pompeii

NAPLES, ITALY—The excavation of a pottery workshop near Pompeii’s Herculaneum gate has revealed ten vases that were dropped and abandoned at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D. “They are really unique items. The potters made them with clay, embellished them with decorations, and were ready to place them into the kiln when Vesuvius erupted,” dig director Laëtitia Cavassa of the Center Jean Bérard told Discovery News. Covered and sealed in a layer of ash, the workshop had at least three rooms outfitted with tools and pottery wheels and two kilns. To read about recent work at one of the most iconic sites in Pompeii, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Moccasins Shed Light on Utah’s Promontory Culture

EDMONTON, ALBERTA—Jack Ives of the University of Alberta has led a study of the hundreds of well-preserved moccasins recovered from Utah’s Promontory Caves, on the shore of Great Salt Lake. The moccasins were unearthed during excavations in the 1930s, and more recently by Ives and his colleagues. The soles of the footwear are made from a single piece of bison leather, lined with fur, and sewn together at the heel. This style is typical of the Canadian Subarctic, which is “decidedly out of place in the eastern Great Basin,” Ives told Western Digs. His team measured 207 moccasins, worn over a period of one or two generations some 850 years ago, and estimated the age and stature of their owners, based on known anatomical ratios. They found that more than 80 percent of the moccasins were worn by children aged 12 and under. “These numerous moccasins are telling us about the structure of the population, not necessarily specific numbers. But you can see that children and sub-adults are a very big part of the population,” he explained. The number of children suggests that this population was “thriving,” in spite of the drying climate and shifting social landscapes. For more on the migration of people from the Canadia Subarctic to the Southwest, see "Who Were the Anasazi?"