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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, November 24

Middle Kingdom Giant Fence Unearthed in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has discovered a 3,500-year-old “giant fence” in Sharqiya province, at the site of the ancient capital of Avaris. The Associated Press reports that the fence, made of sandstone, was 500 yards long and seven yards thick, and may have been part of a city wall. To read about a temple to an Egyptian god, go to "The Cult of Amun."

2,000-Year-Old Room Discovered in Central Rome

ROME, ITALY—Workers installing a gas pipeline in Via Alfonso Lamora in central Rome at first thought they had opened up a sinkhole, but they had really discovered a 2,000-year-old room. The room, plastered and decorated with frescoes, had been part of a home located in an area known as the Horti Lamiani, or Lamian Gardens, according to The Local, Italy. The gardens eventually became imperial property and over the years the area has yielded numerous sculptures, frescoes, and other artifacts now housed in the city’s museums. “Finding a room under the street is rare,” said archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi. “We do get archaeological finds from between 60 and 50 percent of all roadworks though.” To read about Rome's aqueduct system, go to "How Much Water Reached Rome?"

Computer Model Reproduces “Cultural Explosions”

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Changes in tools made by prehistoric peoples often appear in the archaeological record in incremental bursts, thought of as “cultural explosions.” A computer model created by Marcus Feldman, Oren Kolodny, and Nicole Creanza of Stanford University reproduces patterns of creativity observed in the archaeological record as the result of spontaneous innovations, responses to new technologies, and the combination of existing technologies, rather than as a response to external events. “It was insightful to realize that tools can create ‘ecological niches’ for other tools to fill. Once you invent something like a raft, it paves the way for the invention of a paddle that’ll allow you to manipulate it, tools that will help you mend it, and eventually also new technologies for offshore fishing or transport of things,” Kolodny said in a press release. When knowledge is concentrated in a specialized subset of a population, it becomes more vulnerable, and may be lost. Changes in the environment and migration to a new environment can also cause the loss of tools. “Our model demonstrates that these ‘explosions’ could also be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as long as some innovations are dependent on others,” Creanza said. To read about the oldest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."

Medieval Bibles Made From Many Skin Sources

YORK, ENGLAND—A multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers, led by Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins of the University of York, examined the tissue-thin vellum used to produce pocket-sized Bibles in thirteenth century France, England, Italy, and Spain. Some scholars have suggested that the skin of fetal calves had been used to produce such fine pages, since many sources use the Latin term abortivum to describe them. To find out, samples of protein were collected from the pages of 72 pocket Bibles with an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing with a PVC erasers. “We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides,” Fiddyment said in a press release. The ultra-thin pages have since been reproduced by parchment conservator Jiří Vnouček. “It is more a question of using the right parchment-making technology than using uterine skin. Skins from younger animals are of course optimal for production of thin parchment but I can imagine that every skin was collected, nothing wasted,” he said. To read about the excavation of a thirteenth-century tannery, go to "Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur."


More Headlines
Monday, November 23

Archaeologists Revisit England’s Legendary Glastonbury Abbey

SOMERSET, ENGLAND—Researchers from the University of Reading reassessed and reinterpreted the history of Glastonbury Abbey, a site that has been called the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the earliest Christian church in Britain. The team conducted chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal, and pottery artifacts held in the Glastonbury Abbey Museum, and they conducted a new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds. Lead researcher Roberta Gilchrist noted that a devastating fire in 1184 required the monks to keep the Glastonbury legends alive. “The monks also deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused materials to emphasize the Abbey’s mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers—and the Abbey’s coffers,” Gilchrist said in a press release. “It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages. Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot’s lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.” To read about medieval graffiti in England, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."

First Farmers in the Galilee Grew Beans

REHOVOT, ISRAEL—Seeds from fava beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas have been unearthed at Neolithic sites in the Galilee. “This is an important discovery, enabling a deeper understanding of the agricultural revolution in the southern Near East,” researchers from the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a press release. The large number of fava beans unearthed at the site of Ahihud, where seeds of a uniform size were found husked and placed in storage pits, suggests that they were the preferred crop as many as 10,000 years ago. These beans could have been used for food and for future crops. “Despite the importance of cereals in nutrition that continues to this day, it seems that in the region we examined (west of the Jordan River), it was the legumes, full of flavor and protein, which were actually the first species to be domesticated,” they explained. To read more, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel."

DNA Tracks Adaptations in Europe’s First Farmers

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—An international team of scientists has identified genes that changed during and after the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in Europe some 8,500 years ago. The DNA, obtained from 230 ancient individuals from Europe, Siberia, and Turkey, supports the idea that Europe’s first farmers migrated from Anatolia and adapted to the European environment with changes associated with height, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, fatty acid metabolism, vitamin D levels, light skin pigmentation, and blue eye color. Other variants are linked to the risk of celiac disease, which may have been important in adapting to an agricultural diet, and genes associated with the immune system. “The Neolithic period involved an increase in population density, with people living close to one another and to domesticated animals,’” Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide explained in a press release. “It will be interesting to study selection in domesticated animals and to see if there is coevolution between them and the people who were domesticating them,” added Iain Mathieson of Harvard University Medical School. To read more about Europe's first farmers, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Extinction of Megafauna May Have Aided Pumpkin Domestication

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Some 12,000 years ago, mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and other megafauna ate wild species of pumpkin and squash and distributed the seeds in their dung. At this time, such wild members of the cucurbita family were bitter and toxic to humans and smaller animals. When the megafauna went extinct, the cucurbita plants lost their distribution system and their preferred landscape, which was created by the large animals. “We performed an ancient DNA study of cucurbita including modern wild plants, domesticated plants, and archaeological samples from multiple locations. The results suggest, or confirm, that some lineages domesticated by humans are now extinct in the wild,” George Perry of Penn State said in a press release. The team found that that the widely diverse plants may have been domesticated at least six different times in six different places, but were probably not used for food at first. “Rather, they might have been useful for a variety of other purposes like the bottle gourd, as containers, tools, fishnet floats, etc. At some point, as a symbiotic relationship developed, palatability evolved, but the details of that process aren’t known at the present,” explained Logan Kistler, NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Warwick, and a recent Penn State postdoctoral fellow. For more on megafauna remains, go to "Butchered Mammoth Bones Unearthed in Michigan."

Friday, November 20

Well-Preserved Homo Erectus Skull Discovered in China

HEFEI, CHINA—An “uncommonly well-preserved” Homo erectus skull estimated to be between 150,000 and 412,000 years old has been unearthed in east China at the Hualongdong archaeological site by a team from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). Named “Dongzhi Man,” after the county in Anhui Province where it was found, the skull was found among stone tools, teeth and other bone fragments, and more than 6,000 bones from animals, including stegodon, giant tapir, and giant pandas. “All of this indicates the site is exactly where the Dongzhi men lived as we found the bones of the animals were broken in quite an unnatural way. To put it more precisely, they were cut or chopped with tools into small pieces, meaning the animals were eaten or used as sacrifices,” researcher Liu Wu told Xinhua News. Further tests will help pinpoint the age of the fossilized skull.

Congenital Syphilis Detected in Fourteenth-Century Austria

VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Medical University of Vienna identified congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to child, in human skeletal remains from among the 9,000 burials in the cathedral square of St. Pölten, Austria. The burial dates to as early as A.D. 1320. “We found so-called Hutchinson’s teeth with central notches and converging edges and mulberry molars, which are characteristic signs of syphilis,” Karl Großschmidt and Fabian Kanz said in a press release. The diagnosis, made by examining thin sections of bones and teeth with a special light microscopy technique, will be confirmed with biochemical methods. It had been thought that syphilis spread through Europe in the late fifteenth century, after explorers made contact with the New World. To read about evidence of eighteenth-century treatments for diseases including syphilis, go to "Medicine on the High Seas."

“Hobbit” Teeth Analyzed

TOKYO, JAPAN— reports that an analysis of 40 teeth from the nine known specimens of Homo floresiensis has been conducted by scientists from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, the University of Wollongong in Australia, and the National Research and Development Center for Archaeology in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis lived some 18,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores and stood about three feet tall. The team compared the “hobbit” teeth with the teeth from 490 modern humans and the teeth of extinct human cousins. Although the hobbits’ teeth were similar in size to modern human teeth from individuals of about the same stature, they had traits similar to early hominins and even more advanced hominins. The scientists concluded in the journal PLOS ONE that the hobbits were a species separate from modern humans, and probably descended from Homo erectus living on the island with limited resources. To read about ancient dental work, go to "Paleo-Dentistry."

Skeletal Remains in Cistern Linked to Aztec Pulque God

TLAXCALA, MEXICO—Excavations at the Zultépec-Tecoaque archaeological site, home to the Acolhua between A.D. 1200 and 1521, have uncovered human remains in a cistern, a throne made from volcanic rock, and a cylindrical stone carved with the image of the Aztec god Ometochtli. “To date we’ve dug 13 cisterns, but this is the first time we have found such an important figure buried in one of them. This particular character was identified with the Ometochtli glyph, associated with the pulque and drunkenness deity, represented by a rabbit,” Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Enrique Martínez Vargas told Mexico News Daily. Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, was produced in large quantities at Zultépec-Tecoaque. The cistern also contained pulque carafes, and the cooked vertebrae and ribs of at least three different infants. “The remains could have been brought from some other place. We’ll be able to determine this after analyzing the bones,” added archaeologist Bertha Flores. To read about excavations in Mexico City, go to "Under Mexico City."