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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, July 01

British Anatomists Placed High Value on Child Corpses

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—British anatomists made greater use of the remains of infants and stillborn or miscarried fetuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than had been previously thought, according to a report in Live Science. The corpses most readily available to anatomists, those of criminals and the very poor, tended to be of adult men, which meant that younger corpses were more highly valued. Researchers have looked at a University of Cambridge collection including 54 infant and fetus specimens dating from 1768 to 1913 and concluded that cadavers of the young were more likely to be kept as part of medical collections than those of adults. Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, notes that special care was taken when preparing infant and fetal bodies and that researchers learned much about how the body develops through studying them. “They could see for the first time how the bones grow at different ages,” he said. Many of the infant bodies appear to have come from workhouses and poorhouses, while others may have come from illegitimate births, which were highly stigmatized, leading to instances of infanticide. For more on the study of cadavers, go to "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

How Carthage Kept Charioteers Cool

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA—Haaretz reports that archaeologists digging at the site of the Roman-era Circus of Carthage have discovered a water system that was used to cool down charioteers and horses during races. Excavations led by Tunisia’s National Heritage Institute and the German Archaeological Institute have revealed water-resistant mortar at the median strip of the circus, suggesting water basins were placed there. It’s likely that circus workers would have dipped amphoras into the basins and then sprinkled water on passing horses and chariots. Similar basins have been found at a circus outside of Rome and they are depicted on a mosaic from Carthage that shows the circus. The team also has two other sections of the site under excavation, at the spectators section and at an older Punic-era building that was torn down to accommodate the circus. To read more about chariot racing in antiquity, go to “Artifact: Statuete of an Auriga (Charioteer).”

Possible Remains of the Buddha Found in China

NANJING, CHINA—A skull bone that may have belonged to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was discovered in China hidden inside a model of a stupa, or Buddhist shrine used for meditation. A report in Live Science explains that the 1,000-year-old model, which measures around 4 feet by 1.5 feet, was found inside a stone chest in a crypt under the Grand Bao’en Temple in Nanjing. Inscriptions engraved on the chest explain that it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (r. A.D. 997-1022) during the Song Dynasty. An inscription found inside the chest explains that after the Buddha entered paranirvana, breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, his remains were divided into 84,000 shares, of which 19 were sent to China. These included the skull bone, which was found inside a gold casket, which was itself inside a silver casket. The archaeologists who made the discovery are agnostic as to whether the bone actually belonged to the Buddha. Buddhist monks have since buried the bone in another temple. For more, go to “Buddhism, in the Beginning.”

Medieval Burials Unearthed in Wales

PEMBROKSHIRE, WALES—Excavations at an early medieval chapel graveyard on a beach in southwest Wales have revealed Christian burials dating to the early sixth century, making them contemporaries of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. BBC News reports that analysis of skeletons found at similar sites in the region shows that some belonged to people who were not local to the area, but had been born in continental Europe and Ireland. Initial results of the recently discovered remains suggests similar diversity in the group. The Dyfed Archaeological trust is conducting the excavation of the cemetery because the burials are at risk of being washed out to sea. For more on archaeology in Wales, go to "Hillforts of the Iron Age."

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Thursday, June 30

Viking Castle Update From Denmark

KØGE, DENMARK—Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen thinks that a fire was deliberately set 1,000 years ago at the Viking castle Vallø Borgring, and has requested the assistance of police dogs and a fire safety investigator. “The outer posts of the east gate are completely charred, and there are signs of burning on the inside,” he told The Copenhagen Post. The unfinished structure, built on a man-made plateau, is one of five known ring fortresses in Denmark, and is thought to have been the last one built by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. “Our theory right now is that other powerful men in the country attacked the castle and set fire to the gates,” Ulriksen added. For more, go to "Bluetooth's Fortress."

Medieval Manor Excavated in Southwest England

DEVON, ENGLAND—A medieval manor known as North Hall is being excavated in the village of Widecombe in southwest England. A ditch at the edge of the site is thought to have been a moat that was coupled with an earthwork to defend the house. “We think it was attacked at least twice in the Middle Ages by brigands on the moor,” Mike Nendick, Dartmoor National Park spokesperson, told The Plymouth Herald. The team of archaeologists and volunteers has also recovered cobbles, a section of wall, flag stones, pottery, post holes, palisades, and wooden beam slots. “The people who lived here would have been powerful as it would have been a really high-status site,” he explained. For more, go to "The Many Lives of an English Manor House."

Did Megalithic Tombs Double as Telescopes?

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, prehistoric peoples living in what is now Western Europe may have built megalithic tombs as tools for observing the night sky and tracking the movements of the stars. “Different regions had their own traditions and architectural styles, but they are all variations on a theme,” said Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. Spending the night inside these structures may have been part of a rite of passage that included watching the sky at dusk and dawn. In particular, passage graves, which have a large chamber accessed through a long, narrow entry tunnel, may have helped early astronomers see faint stars on the horizon. “The entrance creates an aperture as large as ten degrees through which your naked-eye view is restricted,” Brown said. Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David added that knowing the positions of the stars at specific times of the year may have helped people time seasonal migrations. For more, go to "An Eye on Venus."

Fireplaces Suggest Modern Humans Occupied Hobbits’ Cave

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA—Scientists have found evidence of fireplaces that were in use between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago in Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores. The cave is known as the site where the remains of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive hominin dubbed the “hobbit,” were discovered in 2003. It had been thought that Homo floresiensis died out around 12,000 years ago, but recent research suggests that the species may have gone extinct some 50,000 years ago. “This new evidence for fire at the site fits in with the chronology of modern humans moving through Southeast Asia and into Australia around 50,000 years ago,” Mike Morely of the University of Wollongong told The Australian. No evidence of the use of fire by Homo floresiensis over a period of about 130,000 years has been found in the cave, so scientists think the hearths were made by modern humans. “The gap’s narrowing between the two populations,” Morely explained. “We’ve got them in the same place and we’ve got less than 10,000 years between them.” If the two species did come in contact, it could help explain the demise of Homo floresiensis. For more, go to "New Flores Fossils May Be Hobbit Ancestors."

Wednesday, June 29

Holocaust Escape Tunnel Mapped in Lithuania

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA—Researchers from Israel, Lithuania, the United States, and Canada used electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to map the location of the 115-foot-long escape tunnel dug in the Ponar forest by Jewish prisoners of the Nazis. The prisoners, known as the “burning brigade,” were moved from the Stutthof concentration camp in 1943 to the Ponar forest execution site, where they were forced to open mass graves of Lithuanian and Polish Jews and burn the bodies in order to hide evidence from the Allies. At night, the prisoners, who were kept in an execution pit, dug the tunnel with their hands and spoons. According to a report in Live Science, on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover that year, about 40 of the prisoners attempted to escape through the tunnel. Only 11 of them survived World War II. “The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life,” said archaeologist Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority. For more, go to "World War II Tunnels Reopened in Dover."

Butchered Mammoth Unearthed Near Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—The nearly complete remains of a mammoth, estimated to have lived between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, were discovered near the village of Tultepec by utility workers. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History say that the site was once a shallow lake where mammoths could have gotten stuck. The bones of the adult animal were scattered, suggesting that it had been partially butchered by humans, although its skull and tusks are intact. Archaeologist Luis Cordoba told Agence France-Presse that the remains of more than 50 mammoths have been discovered in the region around Mexico City. 

New Thoughts on Borneo’s “Deep Skull”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—“Deep Skull,” a 37,000-year-old cranium discovered in Niah Cave on the island of Borneo, has been examined by Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales. When the skull was first studied after its discovery in 1958, researchers concluded that it belonged to an adolescent male who was closely related to modern indigenous Australians. That interpretation became part of a hypothesis postulating that Borneo’s first inhabitants were replaced by migrating farmers from southern China. According to the International Business Times, Curnoe suggests the skull belonged to an older woman and that it “more closely resembles people today from more northerly parts of Southeast Asia.” In this view, the remains could represent the ancestors of Borneo’s modern indigenous population. In this scenario, the island’s indigenous people adopted farming some 3,000 years ago. For more, go to "Letter from Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."

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