Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, April 28

Rethinking Roman-Era Skulls From London’s Liverpool Street Dig

LONDON, ENGLAND—Cremated human bones have been found packed in an old cooking pot, near the site where Roman-era skulls had been found along the former banks of the Walbrook River. It had been thought that the skulls had eroded out of burials and tumbled downstream, but the cremation burial suggests that skulls could have been placed there. “Certainly no river ever carried off the cooking pot with its cremated bones which was unquestionably deliberately placed here. And the horse skull we found with one of the skulls didn’t come out of some equine graveyard, that was clearly also placed there,” Jay Carver, lead archaeologist of the Crossrail project, told The Guardian. The skulls may have been ritual deposits, or the remains of executed criminals. Some think the skulls could be from the first-century rebellion led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, against the Romans. “I think we now have to look back at earlier finds in this area—we have found 40 human and two horse skulls, but if you add them up over the last two centuries you’re talking hundreds of skulls in a very small area—and try and work out what is actually going on,” Carver said. To read about the search for the final resting spot of the great Iceni leader, see "Boudicca: Queen of the Iceni."

Modern Humans May Have Developed New Toolkits in Europe

NAGOYA, JAPAN—Researchers from Nagoya University and The University of Tokyo studied 40,000-year-old stone tools, including small stone points used as tips for hunting weapons, which were used by people of the Early Ahmarian culture and the Protoaurignacian culture. It is thought that these innovative tools and weapons helped modern humans migrate from west Asia to Europe, where they had a significant advantage over Neanderthals. “We’re not so special, I don’t think we survived Neanderthals simply because of technological competence,” Seiji Kadowaki of Nagoya University said in a press release. The team found that the points appeared in Europe 3,000 years earlier than in the Levant. “We looked at the basic timeline revealed by similar stone points, and it shows that humans were using them in Europe before they appeared in the Levant—the opposite of what we’d expect if the innovation had led to the humans’ migration from Africa to Europe,” Kadowaki explained. For a study of later tools in Europe, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Stone Tools Found in Sharjah’s Al Dhaid

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES—An archaeological site in central Sharjah has yielded axes, scrapers, and awls thought to be hundreds of thousands of years old. “The discovery of these tools will add valuable information to our records about the Stone Age in the emirate, and the early history of human groups and their predecessors in this region,” Sabah Jassim, head of the Department of Antiquities, told The National. Several of the tools will be analyzed and dated at Tübingen University in Germany. For more on early human discoveries in the Emirates, see "New Evidence for Mankind's Earliest Migrations."

Old Kingdom Statue Base Unearthed in Upper Egypt

ASWAN, EGYPT—The Luxor Times reports that the lower part of a rare statue carved with the name of King Sahure, the second king of the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty, has been discovered at El-Kab. The excavation, conducted by the Belgian mission, is directed by Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. The statue base was carved from fine-grained sandstone. The complete statue would have depicted King Sahure seated on a throne. There are only two known statues of King Sahure—one of them is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the other is at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir. For another recent Egyptological discovery, see "18th-Dynasty Tomb Discovered in Luxor."

More Headlines
Monday, April 27

New Thoughts on Evolution and Lower Back Pain

BURNABY, CANADA—Biological anthropologist Kimberly Plomp of Simon Fraser University has investigated the relationship between vertebral shape, upright locomotion, and human spinal health using two-dimensional shape analyses of chimpanzee, orangutan, and archaeological human vertebrae. “We found that some characteristics of human vertebrae differ in shape between those individuals who have a lesion called a Schmorl’s node—a small hernia that can occur in the cartilaginous disc between the vertebrae,” she said in a press release. It turns out that the vertebrae of people with Schmorl’s nodes resemble the vertebrae of chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees split from a common ancestor between eight and nine million years ago, and still have 98 percent of DNA in common. Humans evolved to be bipedal, while chimps evolved to be knuckle-walkers. “However evolution is not perfect and some vertebral characteristics, such as the ones we identified as being similar to chimpanzees, may have remained within the human ‘blueprint’ and result in some people having vertebrae that are less able to withstand the pressures of bipedal walking,” she explained. She and her colleague Mark Collard will continue to investigate this “ancestral shape hypothesis” with three-dimensional shape studies. To read more about recent research into human evolution, see "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Moai Headgear May Have Been Rolled Into Place

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Sean Hixon, a student at the University of Oregon, presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology on possible ways that the pukao, or headgear worn by Easter Island’s moai, might have been put in place by the Rapa Nui. Hixon and his team modeled the force and torque needed to move the sculpted volcanic rock, which could weigh 12 tons, into place with different techniques, including rolling the stones up a ramp to the top of the statues, building a tower and using a pulley system, or erecting the pukao and moai simultaneously. “It seems like a relatively small number of people could have done it, either by levering or rolling,” Hixon told Live Science. The oblong shape of the carving would have prevented it from rolling down the ramp by accident, and a small lip at the base of the pukao could have kept it from tipping over during placement. “The base indentation isn’t really necessary for the hat once it’s on the statue. The hats are pretty massive. It’s not like they’re going to fall off without the base indentation,” he said. Other indentations and marks on the red volcanic rock may have provided traction for rolling the pukao up a ramp, but erosion and damage make it difficult to determine if the marks were place deliberately. To read more about experimental archaeology, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Rock Art Discovered in Indonesia’s Kei Islands

AMBON, INDONESIA—Prehistoric rock art has been discovered near the village of Ohoidertaun in Indonesia’s Maluku Province. There are at least 400 images, according to Muhammad Husni, head of the archaeology office in Ambon, the capital of the province. “We do not know the age yet. It needs in-depth research. However, according to the number of motive images, we can conclude that the culture at the time was well developed,” he told Antara News. Archaeologist Wuri Handoko added that the paintings are probably related to two other rock art sites in the region. “If we see the landscape, the rock paintings have been found in the coastal areas. It indicates there was a long distance traversed through these areas by the ancient humans,” she said. The sites could help scientists understand the migration pattern in Maluku. To read more about archaeology in the region, see "The Landscape of Memory."

Liquid Mercury Discovered Beneath Teotihuacan Pyramid

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—“Large quantities” of liquid mercury have been discovered in a chamber at the end of a tunnel located beneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan. “It’s something that completely surprised us,” archaeologist Sergio Gómez of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told Reuters. Last year he annouced that three chambers had been found at the end of the tunnel, which had been sealed for 1,800 years. Jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls, metallic spheres dubbed “disco balls,” and pyrite mirrors have also been uncovered. The mercury could indicate that Gómez and his team are closing in on the first royal tomb to be found in Teotihuacan. He thinks that the mercury could have symbolized an underworld river or lake. If there is a tomb, it could help scholars determine how the city was ruled. To read more about Teotihuacan and other ancient cities in the Valley of Mexico, see "Big Data, Big Cities."

Friday, April 24

Impact of Industrialization to be Studied With High-Tech Tools

LONDON, ENGLAND—Culture 24 reports that Jelena Bekvalac of the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology will examine skeletons in the museum’s collection to study the impact of industrialization on the human body. “The most tangible evidence we have for the long-term consequences of the industrialization process upon us is, quite simply, written in our bones. Using the very latest digital technology, we will examine the skeletal remains of over 1,000 adult men and women from industrial-era London in addition to a further 500 skeletons from the medieval metropolis,” Bekvalac said. The research, funded by a City of London Archaeological Trust grant from a bequest made by the late Rosemary Green, could provide clues to the conditions of obesity and cancer, often thought of as “man-made,” modern conditions. The project will also produce an extensive interactive digital resource that will be published online. For more on the study of remains from this period, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men." 

Reindeer Antlers Suggest Viking Age Began With Trade

AARHUS, DENMARK—Antlers from Norwegian reindeer have been unearthed in Ribe, the oldest commercial center in Denmark. The antlers have been dated to A.D. 725, some 70 years before the Viking raid on the Lindisfarne monastery in northern England. “The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage. They learned to master sailing to such an extent that they get to the coast of England where the locals don’t expect anything. They come quickly, plunder the unprepared victims, and leave again—a sort of hit and run,” Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University told Science Nordic. The Norwegian reindeer antlers suggest that Norway’s earliest so-called Vikings developed their maritime skills through trade. “Now we can prove that shipping between Norway and the market town of Ribe was established prior to the Viking era, and trade networks helped to create the incentives and the knowledge of the sea, which made the Viking raids possible. It is the first time that we can clearly link two very important phenomena, the lock and key if you like, of the Viking Age,” he said. For more, see "The First Vikings."

Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced

ONTARIO, CANADA—The nearly complete genome of two Siberian woolly mammoths has been sequenced by an international team of researchers. One of the mammoths lived in northeastern Siberia some 45,000 years ago. The other is thought to have been from one of the last mammoth populations, which lived on Russia’s Wrangel Island, and is only 4,300 years old. “With a complete genome and this kind of data, we can now begin to understand what made a mammoth a mammoth—when compared to an elephant—and some of the underlying causes of their extinction which is an exceptionally difficult and complex puzzle to solve,” Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University said in a press release. It has long been thought that human hunters contributed to the demise of the woolly mammoth, but the study suggests that multiple factors were at play over their long evolutionary history. The analysis showed that the animal populations suffered and recovered from a severe decline some 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. The final severe decline occurred in the last days of the Ice Age. “We found that the genome from one of the world’s last mammoths displayed low genetic variation and a signature consistent with inbreeding, likely due to the small number of mammoths that managed to survive on Wrangel Island during the last 5,000 years of the species’ existence,” said Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. To read about the discovery of a largely intact mammoth, see "Lyuba the Baby Mammoth."

Figurine Resembling an African Elephant Found in India

CHHATTISGARH, INDIA—A figurine resembling an African elephant has been unearthed at the Tarighat site in central India. “The elephant has large ears and spine bones visible on its back, identical to elephants found in Africa. Elephants of that physique can’t be found in Asia,” JR Bhagat, director of the excavation for the state archaeology department, told The Times of India. The 2,500-year-old site is known as an international trading center where Scythian and Greek coins have been found. Earlier excavations have also uncovered figurines of a giraffe-like animal. Ashok Tiwari, a former curator at the Museum of Man, Bhopal, thinks that the figurine could have been sculpted by a trader who had traveled to Africa. Archaeologist CL Raikwar added that similar pieces of “country art” are the result of artists’ imaginations. “Chhattisgarh might have had an affluent and glorious past but I am yet to find clearer links of Tarighat to the international market,” Bhagat concluded. For more about the archaeology of the region, see "Letter From Bangladesh."