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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, September 04

Crypt Discovered at Fifth-Century Basilica in Bulgaria

KRUSHARI, BULGARIA—A fifth-century Christian crypt has been unearthed at a basilica located near Zaldapa, an ancient fortified town in northeastern Bulgaria. The large crypt, which may have held the remains of at least one martyr, was entered sometime in the tenth century. (Basilicas were often built on top of martyrs’ burial places.) “We still do not know exactly what is in it, because we have not finished the excavation,” Kostadin Kostadinov, director of the Regional Historical Museum, said in an interview on Bulgarian National Television that was reported in The Sofia Globe. Archaeologists are looking for an inscription that could tell them about who was buried there. For more on archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Genome Recovered From Neolithic Farmer in Southern Europe

MADRID, SPAIN—For the first time, scientists from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and the Center for GeoGenetics in Denmark have sequenced the genome of a Neolithic farmer whose remains were recovered from a cave near Barcelona. Some 8,000 years ago, the first farmers to enter Europe came from the Near East—some traveled into Central Europe on the Danube River, and their DNA has been recovered. Others followed the Mediterranean coast and reached the Iberian Peninsula, but climatic conditions in Southern Europe have made the recovery of ancient genetic material from this region difficult. “The sequencing of this genome has been possible thanks to new advances in both techniques of ancient DNA extraction, building of and construction techniques of genomic libraries and massive sequencing; from an experimental point of view, it has been quite challenging,” team member Iñigo Olalde said in a press release. This DNA, extracted from the tooth of a woman who lived some 7,400 years ago, shows that she had light skin and dark eyes and hair. She was also descended from an ancestral population common to the group who traveled along the Danube. To read about tools used around this time, go to "Neolithic Toolkit."

Scientists Study Environmental Impact of Ancient Maya

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Geographers Tim Beach and Sheryl Luzzader-Beach of the University of Texas at Austin used old and new data to study the impact of Maya civilization on the lowlands of Central America. “Most popular sources talk about the Anthropocene and human impacts on climate since the industrial revolution, but we are looking at a deeper history. Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans’ impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer,” Beach said in a press release. The researchers identified six markers of large-scale change, including “Maya clay” rocks, unique soil sequences, carbon isotope rations, widespread chemical enrichment, building remains and landscape modifications, and signs of Maya-induced climate change. “Historically, it’s common for people to talk about the bad that happened with past environmental changes, such as erosion and climate change from deforestation. But we can learn a lot from how Maya altered their environment to create vast field systems to grow more crops and respond to rising sea levels,” Beach said. To read more about how archaeologists are using cutting-edge technology to analyze ancient Maya cities, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

Cathedral Scribe Produced Salisbury Magna Carta

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Handwriting analysis has led to new thoughts about how government documents were produced and distributed in medieval England. Literary scholar Elaine Treharne of Stanford University noticed that the handwriting that produced the Register of St. Osmund, a document produced at Salisbury Cathedral and held in its archive, resembled one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, which was issued by King John in 1215. She examined the letters, punctuation, abbreviations, the angle of the pen, and the number of strokes taken to produce each character in the two documents. She concluded that the cathedral scribe that wrote the Register of St. Osmund also produced the Salisbury Magna Carta. “It makes us look again at the role of the church in relationship to the king. They become much more partners, really, in the production of texts,” Treharne said in a press release. She thinks that versions of the Magna Carta “were written in the regions and then taken to the court for sealing by the king’s Great Seal.” It had been thought that copies of the Magna Carta had been produced in the central court and then distributed to satellite locations. To read more about medieval England, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings." 

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Thursday, September 03

3,000-Year-Old Pottery Discovered in Papua New Guinea

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—A piece of red, glossy pottery found in the rugged highlands of Papua New Guinea has been shown to be the oldest-known pottery in New Guinea. Tim Denham of Australian National University, working with researchers from Otago University, obtained precise dates for the pottery as part of a study to learn more about how the technology spread throughout the Pacific. People who lived on the coast of Papua New Guinea would have had contact with seafaring, pottery-making cultures such as the Lapita people. “It’s an example of how technology spread among cultures. Some pottery must have soon found its way into the highlands, which inspired the highlanders to try making it themselves,” Denham said in a press release. “And it shows human history is not always a smooth progression—later on pottery making was abandoned across most of the highlands of New Guinea. No one knows when or why,” he said. To read about smoked mummies in Papua New Guinea, go to the current issue's "World Roundup."

Roman Sarcophagus Recovered From Israel Construction Site

ASHKELON, ISRAEL—Construction workers in southern Israel have damaged a rare Roman sarcophagus, according to a statement made by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). IAA inspectors found the sarcophagus beneath a stack of sheet metal and boards. They also saw that concrete had been poured over the site where the artifact was unearthed in an attempt to conceal it. The eight-foot-long sarcophagus has a life-sized image of a person carved on the lid. “He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt decorated with embroidery on the front. A tunic is wrapped around his waist. The figure’s eyes were apparently inlaid with precious stones that have disappeared and the hair is arranged in curls, in a typical Roman hairstyle,” archaeologist Gaby Mazor told Discovery News. The sarcophagus also bears carvings of wreaths, bulls’ heads, cupids, and an image of Medusa. “In this case, the building contractors chose to hide the rare artifact and their action has caused painful damage to history. Legal proceedings will now be taken against those involved, thereby leading to a delay in construction and related expenditures,” Amir Ganor, head of the Inspection Department at the IAA, said in a statement. To read more about the period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."

Mummy Study Suggests Ancient Egyptians Bred Birds of Prey

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ancient Egyptians bred birds of prey and force-fed them before offering them to the gods, according to a study conducted by a team from the American University in Cairo, Stellenbosch University, and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. “The idea of birds of prey being bred to the extent of being kept and force-fed is new. Until now, the sheer number of raptor mummies had been a mystery—did they catch or trap them and kill them, raid nests, or find them dead? Our results explain why they had so many: we now think it was because of active breeding,” Salima Ikram told The International Business Times. A 3-D image of a mummified kestrel known as SACHM 2575 showed that it had the remains of a mouse and a small sparrow in its stomach, and had choked to death on a young house mouse. Ikram notes that this species of bird has a tendency to cache surplus food, so it is unlikely that the bird would have overeaten on its own. “Thus SACHM 2575 provides the first real evidence for keeping raptors in captivity…It also broaches the possibility that breeding programs for these animals were instituted, as was the case for other animal offerings, such as ibises, dogs, and cats,” she said. For more on ancient animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Neolithic Skeleton Shows Signs of Leukemia

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment and the University of Tübingen have examined the 7,000-year-old skeleton of a woman who died between the ages of 30 and 40 and determined that she suffered from leukemia. “We examined several bones of the skeleton with our high-resolution computed tomography system, and we found an unusual loosening of the interior bone tissue—the cancellous bone—in the upper right humerus and the sternum,” Heike Scherf of the Senckenberg Center said in a press release. Blood-forming stem cells are located at the ends of these bones, and at the ends of the vertebrae, ribs, skull, and pelvis, and so blood cancer can occur at these locations. Other diseases, including osteoporosis and hyperparathyroidism, which cause similar bone damage, were ruled out. None of the other ten individuals in the study, all buried in the Neolithic graveyard of Stuttgart-Mühlhausen, showed signs of this cancer. “However, we cannot determine whether the woman actually died from the disease,” Scherf added. For more, go to "Ancient Oncology."

Wednesday, September 02

English Civil War Mass Grave Identified

DURHAM, UK—Construction work for a new café uncovered the jumbled skeletons of between 17 and 28 male individuals which research now shows are the remains of Scottish soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, according to a press release from Durham University. The battle, one of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War, resulted in perhaps as many as 1,700 prisoners of war dying of malnutrition, disease, and cold on the 100-mile-march from southeastern Scotland to Durham in northeast England. Until now, it hasn’t been known what happened to the bodies of the victims of this forced march, but the new research shows that at least some—and perhaps many more—were buried on the grounds of Durham Castle. “It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now University buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-seventeenth century,” says Richard Annis, a senior archaeologists at Archaeological Services Durham University. To read about a mass grave of Viking-Age soldiers, go to “The First Vikings.”

3D Printer Produces Replica of Iron Age Instrument

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Iron Age artifact discovered in Ireland was originally thought to have been a spear-butt. However, Billy Ó Foghlú, a PhD student at the Australian National University, thought that it might have been part of a musical instrument, so he created a replica based on the object’s exact measurements using a 3D printer. When Ó Foghlú used the object as a horn mouthpiece, he found that it produced a rich, velvety tone. “These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers,” said Ó Foghlú in a press release. “They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture.” Horns dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages have been discovered throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, though according to Ó Foghlú no other mouthpieces are known to have been found in Ireland. To read about sculptures of musicians found in Peru, go to "Artifact."

Neolithic Feast Recreated

PAPHOS, CYPRUS—Live Science reports that University of Edinburgh archaeologists working at the site of Prastio Mesorotsos have built and tested a replica of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic pit oven. Over the course of three years, the team excavated a large stone-lined pit at the site measuring eight feet across and three feet deep that they believed could be an ancient oven. But its size led excavation director Andrew McCarthy to suspect cooking would not be feasible in it. As a test, before they began excavating this summer they dug a pit with similar dimensions near a local restaurant and lined it with the same type of stones used in the Neolithic pit. In a painstaking process, the team managed to cook a feast of goat and pig meat for nearly 200 guests. To read about a similar experiment testing ancient Irish brewing, go to “Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh.” 

New Zealand’s Prehistoric “Wildlife Sanctuaries”

OTAGO, NEW ZEALAND—Researchers using a range of techniques, including radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis, have modeled the population histories of ancient seabirds in New Zealand and found that human hunting had a profound impact on them. According to a University of Otago press release, the study shows that populations of shag seabirds on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island, had a stable population history, while their counterparts on the two other major islands suffered a massive decline in numbers. "There was a loss of more than ninety-nine percent of their population size within 100 years of human arrival,” says University of Otago geneticist Nic Rawlence. “These once heavily-hunted mainland populations now occupy only a fraction of their prehistoric range, having never really recovered.” The human population on Stewart Island dwindled around 1500 A.D., which might help explain why wildlife populations there did not go into decline. While some scholars believe climatic changes were responsible for the die off, the researchers point out that Stewart Island shared the same climate history as New Zealand’s two major islands, and believe the new findings show prehistoric humans shoulder most of the blame. To read about hunting technology among Australia's Aborigines, go to "What's the Point?"

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