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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 30

Intact Horse’s Skeleton Found at Roman Site

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The skeleton of a horse estimated to have died 2,000 years ago has been unearthed at the construction site of a new biomedical campus. The almost complete skeleton shows that the horse had suffered a broken leg that had begun to heal before the animal died. “It was in a pit around it which we think were dug for quarrying gravel in the Roman period. The other signs were fragments of pottery and fragments of other animals. It was probably just on the edge of a settlement, there is certainly a Roman settlement to the north of it and it’s in the general area of Roman activity,” Alison Dickens of the Cambridge Archaeology Unit told Cambridge News. She suspects that the horse died or had to be put down after a “specific incident,” since it is unusual to find the intact remains of an animal. “It is a fascinating discovery. The horse may have been just a workhorse for the quarries, which supplied construction materials for the nearby Roman settlement, or it might have been someone’s prize thoroughbred; we won’t know until tests are done,” commented Keith McNeil, chief executive of Cambridge University Hospitals. To read in-depth about excavations at one of the most important ancient Roman sites, see "Rome's Imperial Port."

5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Beer Vessels Unearthed In Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Fragments of pottery basins used by Egyptians to make beer 5,000 years ago have been unearthed at a construction site in central Tel Aviv. Traces of barley have been found on similar vessels from other sites. Tests should reveal if the containers had been carried from Egypt, or if they had been made locally in the Egyptian style. “This is also the northernmost evidence we have of an Egyptian presence in the Early Bronze Age I,” Diego Barkan, director of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Live Science. “Until now, we were only aware of an Egyptian presence in the northern Negev and southern coastal plain, whereby the northernmost point of Egyptian occupation occurred in Azor.” The excavation also uncovered 17 pits used for agricultural storage during the early Bronze Age, and a 6,000-year-old copper dagger and flint. To read about Egyptian animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."

1,000-Year-Old Salve Recipe Kills MRSA Cultures

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—A ninth-century Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections has been found to kill the modern-day superbug MRSA and disrupt naturally antibiotic-resistant biofilms in tests conducted by researchers from The University of Nottingham and Texas Tech University. Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee enlisted the microbiologists who recreated the potion, which includes ingredients such as onion, garlic, and part of a cow’s stomach brewed in a copper vessel. The recipe is from Bald’s Leechbook, a volume in the British Library that is thought to be one of the earliest-known books of medical advice and medicines. “We thought that Bald’s eye salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab—copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was,” Freya Harrison said in a press release. Steve Diggle adds that people may have been carrying out detailed scientific studies before bacteria were even discovered in order to produce such effective remedies. To read in-depth about Anglo-Saxon archaeology, see "The Kings of Kent."

Medieval Devotional Panel Displayed

LONDON, ENGLAND—A fourteenth-century devotional panel discovered in 2000 by archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology will go on display for the first time at the Museum of London. Discovered in the north bank of the Thames, along with pilgrim badges, shoes, and a leather knife sheath, the well-preserved metal panel depicts the life and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, a cousin of the unpopular King Edward II. Lancaster tried to curb the king’s power and was publicly beheaded for treason in 1322. Within six weeks of his death, Londonist reports that miracles were being attributed to Lancaster. The panel may have been associated with a shrine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he was venerated. To read more about archaeology in London, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

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Friday, March 27

Medieval Woman’s Remains Unearthed in Wales

NEFYN, WALES—A cist grave containing a woman’s skeleton has been unearthed at a church in North Wales. The site is thought to have been part of a medieval monastic settlement, based upon the discovery of a wall that is missing from early maps of the area. The woman in the grave, which had been covered with a large, flat stone, had been in her 60s and suffered from some arthritis when she died sometime between A.D. 1180 and 1250. Human remains from this period are rare in Wales because of the acidity of the soil. “This type of grave is generally believed to be of an early medieval date, although due to the lack of surviving skeletal remains this hypothesis often goes untested,” Catherine Rees of CR Archaeology told Culture 24. “She would have lived through some very turbulent times in Welsh history and could have lived through the rise to power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or as he is more well known, Llywelyn the Great, as he consolidated north and much of Wales under his control. She may have also been alive when the famous medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, stayed at Nefyn in 1188 as part of a campaign to raise support for the third crusade,” she added. Studies of the isotopes in the woman’s teeth could reveal if she grew up in the area. She may have been a local resident, or she may have been a pilgrim on the route to the Christian site of Bardsey Island. To read about a similar discovery, see "Cathedral Grave May Have Belonged to a Medieval Knight."

Neolithic Bones in Italy’s Scaloria Cave Were Defleshed

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The bones of at least 22 Neolithic people, many of them children, have been identified in Italy’s Scaloria Cave. The cave, located in southeastern Italy, is filled with stalactites and offers “the first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead,” John Robb of the University of Cambridge told Science Magazine. The human bones had been randomly mixed with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools. Robb’s new study shows that few whole human skeletons had been deposited in the cave, and the bones only had light cut marks on them. This suggests that the selected bones may have been put in the cave as much as a year after death, since only residual muscle tissue had to be removed from them. Robb and his international team of scientists think that the defleshing process could have been part of a long, multistage burial plan that ended when the cleaned, stone-like bones were put in the cave along with other discarded items. The cave’s stone-forming, dripping water and stalactites may have had special spiritual power for the Neolithic Italians. To read about an unusual and poignant Neolithic burial in Italy, see "Eternal Embrace." 

Neanderthal Ear Bones Differed From Modern Humans’

VIZCAYA, SPAIN—A new study of the remains of a two-year-old child discovered in the 1970s in France have shed new light on Neanderthal anatomy. Among the fossils were a very complete left temporal bone and a complete stapes, or middle ear bone. Virtual reconstruction techniques allowed researchers from the University of the Basque Country to “extract” the tiny ear bone—the most complete one in the Neanderthal record—and study it. The team found significant anatomical differences between the Neanderthal stapes and those found in modern humans. "We do not yet know the relation between these morphological differences and hearing in the Neanderthals. This would constitute a new challenge for the future,” paleontologist Asier Gómez-Olivencia said in a press release. For more on our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Large, Comparative Study Suggests Diversity in Human Ancestors

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Fragmentary fossils, including tiny toes and ankle bones, have been used to estimate the height and body mass of early human ancestors living during the Pleistocene. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Tübingen who developed the new techniques, reveals that that early humans displayed a wide variety body sizes. “What we’re seeing is perhaps the beginning of a unique characteristic of our own species—the origins of diversity. It’s possible to interpret our findings as showing that there were either multiple species of early human, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo rudolfensis, or one highly diverse species. This fits well with recent cranial evidence for tremendous diversity among early members of the genus Homo,” Jay Stock of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. For example, groups living in South African caves averaged 4.8 feet tall, while some individuals from Kenya’s Koobi Fora region were almost six feet tall. “Basically every textbook on human evolution gives the perspective that one lineage of humans evolved larger bodies before spreading beyond Africa. But the evidence for this story about our origins and the dispersal out of Africa just no longer really fits. The first clues came from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia where fossils of really small-bodied people date to 1.77 million years ago. This has been known for several years, but we now know that consistently large body size evolved in Eastern Africa after 1.7 million years ago, in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya,” he explained. For more on the evolution of early humans, see "Our Tangled Ancestery."

Thursday, March 26

Silver Coins Turn Up in Bulgarian Field

POPOVO, BULGARIA—A man plowing a field in northeastern Bulgaria discovered a pot containing about 90 silver coins dating from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. He did not realize at first that the vessel contained coins, but when he found them, he took the treasure to the police, who took the discovery to the Popovo Museum of History. According to Archaeology in Bulgaria, the Ottoman and European coins all have holes in them, suggesting that they may have been strung as a woman’s necklace. To read about a spectacular recent discovery in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Another False Paternity Found in Richard III’s Family Tree

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—The remains of Richard III were reburied today in Leicester Cathedral. Last year, researchers from the University of Leicester discovered that the fallen king’s Y-chromosome did not match that of a group of living male relatives who descended from Henry Somerset, fifth Duke of Beaufort. That means there was at least one break in the Y-chromosome line, or a case of mistaken paternity, somewhere between Richard III’s great-great-grandfather Edward III and Henry Somerset, fifth Duke of Beaufort. Kevin Schürer and Turi King of the University of Leicester were approached by Patrice de Warren, who can trace his male line through Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou, a common ancestor of both Richard III and Henry Somerset who lived in the twelfth century. However, Patrice de Warren’s Y-chromosome does not match that of Richard III or the Somerset line, indicating another false paternity in the royal family tree. “It hasn’t helped us narrow down where the break is,” King told Live Science. For more on the initial discovery of the monarch's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

How to Farm in the World’s Driest Desert

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Five hundred years ago, farmers abandoned their terraced fields and irrigation systems in Chile’s Atacama Desert. “These are systems that were developed about A.D. 1000 when people figured out how to divert water from springs which are recharged by snowmelt from the Andes,” Frances Hayashida of The University of New Mexico said in a press release. The population was conquered by the Incas in the 1400s. “We think they brought in workers to work in the mines. They put in an extensive road system to be able to move ore and personnel back and forth. But then they need to feed everybody, right?” Hayashida asked. An international team of scientists is mapping the fields and canals with drones. They want to know how much water the farmers had to work with, and if the farmers were able to feed the miners. They are also examining stone hoes and looking at plant remains to see if the varieties of maize, quinoa, and potatoes were different from the ones grown in the region today. Grinding stones at the site suggest that maize beer was produced, and perhaps consumed at Inca ritual feasts. “This is something you would normally do with your neighbors, if they were working for you. You provide food and drink. So they just took this practice and did it on an imperial scale.” To read in depth about how the Inca dealt with another conquered population, see "The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui."

Gold Lock Rings Unearthed in North Wales

WREXHAM, WALES—ITV News reports that two gold lock rings dating to the late Bronze Age have been unearthed in northeast Wales. The rings may have been used as earrings or may have been worn to gather locks of hair. Similar rings have been found buried at Gaerwen, Anglesey, the Great Orme, Conwy, and Newport, Pembrokeshire. Most of these sites are on the coast, suggesting that trade occurred with other, distant communities in Wales and Ireland. “We think that these complete and prized objects of gold were carefully buried in isolated places as gifts to the gods, perhaps at the end of the lives of their owners,” said Adam Gwilt of the National Museum Wales.  To read about a similar discovery, see "Irish Gold."