A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, November 21

A Magic Spell Book from Ancient Egypt

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—A mysterious ancient Egyptian parchment codex that has been in the collection of Macquarie University in Australia for more than three decades has finally been deciphered and found to contain a series of invocations and spells. The book, which likely dates to the seventh or eighth century A.D. and is written in the Egyptian language called Coptic contains a variety of spells—some love spells, some to exorcise evil spirits, and others to treat infections. As to who would have used these spells, lead researcher Malcolm Choat told Livescience, "It is my sense that there were ritual practitioners outside the ranks of the clergy and monks, but exactly who they were is shielded from us by the fact that people didn't really want to belabeled as a "magician.” To read about all kinds of ancient magic, see ARCHAEOLOGY’S “When Spells Worked Magic.”

Roman Gold Mining from the Air

LEON, SPAIN—Researchers from the University of Salamanca have discovered a sophisticated ancient Roman gold mining network in northwestern Spain’s Eria Valley, reports La Ciencia es Noticia. Using airborne lidar that allowed them to see beneath the thick vegetation and cultivated fields, the scholars have located what they consider to be the largest opencast Roman goldmine, as well as the extremely complex and sophisticated hydraulic network used to extract the gold, a technique that the Romans learned from the Egyptians who had employed hydraulic techniques in mining for hundreds of years. To read about the discovery of a hoard of Roman gold, go to ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Hoard of Roman Gold Jewlery Unearthed in Colchester.

How to Thrive on the Roof of the World

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A new study shows that 3,600 years ago farmers were raising crops and livestock at unprecedented altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau. “Until now, when and how humans started to live and farm at such extraordinary heights has remained an open question," archaeologist Martin Jones said in a University of Cambridge press release. "Our understanding of sustained habitation above 2,000 to 3,000 meters on the Tibetan Plateau has to date been hampered by the scarcity of archaeological data available." To address that gap, Jones and his colleagues studied animal bones and plant remains from 53 archaeological sites in the region. They found that the inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau adopted a then-novel approach to agriculture and pastoralism, relying on a diversity of crops, including cold-tolerant wheat and barley, as well as sheep, cattle, and pig, to sustain year-round habitation at ever higher altitudes at the same time that the climate was getting colder. Jones thinks that study of such ancient agricultural practices can help modern societies. "The more we learn about the rich ecology of past and present societies, and the wider range of crops they raised in the world’s more challenging environments, the more options we will have for thinking through food security issues in the future.” To read more about early agriculture, see "Can Barley Tell the Tale of Civilization."

Danish Fortress Dated to Viking Age

AARHUS, DENMARK—Radiocarbon dating of logs from the ring fortress that was unearthed in Denmark earlier this year confirm that it dates to the Viking period, sometime around the tenth century, meaning that it could have been built during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth. "We can’t say whether or not it’s Harald Bluetooth’s fortress yet, but now that we’ve dated it to the tenth century, the trail is getting hotter," medieval archaeologist Søren Sindbæk told Aarhus University News. "The things we’ve discovered about the fortress during the excavations all point in the same direction. We already know that there’s a good chance that we’ll find conclusive evidence next year.” Sindbæk notes that Harald Bluetooth oversaw the construction of three known fortresses in Denmark, and that their dimensions and the structure of their ramparts and gates are very similar to those of the newly discovered stronghold. "It’s hard to avoid the sense that the same master builder was responsible,” says Sindbæk. To read more about this era in Scandinavian history, see "The First Vikings."

More Headlines
Thursday, November 20

Early Neanderthal Site Endangered

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—The Baker’s Hole site in Kent is known for its 250,000-year-old Neanderthal remains. Francis Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton is working to survey it and examine paleo-environmental remains before the site is lost to erosion, animal burrows, and plant roots. “These biological remains can tell us a lot about the environment early Neanderthals lived in. We can tell if the climate was warm or cold, whether the area was wooded or marshland, and other factors that help us to see the context in which they lived. They can also help date the site accurately,” he said. The new information will help to create a management plan that could ensure the site’s survival. To read about research into Neanderthal diet and technology, see "Neanderthal Medicine Chest."

U.S. Returns Looted Artifacts to Thailand

BANGKOK, THAILAND—The U.S. government has returned hundreds of artifacts to Thailand in a ceremony at the country’s National Museum. The artifacts were recovered from a museum in southern California after a five-year, undercover federal investigation. Many of them had been looted from Ban Chiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the 1970s. “Of the artifacts returned to Thailand, we can say that the 554 pieces, most of them are priceless because they are dated to a prehistoric period,” Vira Rojposhanarat, the kingdom’s culture minister, told Voice of America. Rojpochanarat accepted the artifacts from U.S. Charge D’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy, the highest-ranking American diplomat in the country. 

Ancient Rock Art Discovered Near Sydney

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—A rock art site thought to be tens of thousands of years old has been discovered in Sydney’s north shore area. Images of the ancient artwork have been computer-enhanced to make the natural pigments more visible, and to differentiate them from recently painted images. The hand stencils had been hidden behind vegetation and were found when employees of Sydney Water started looking around after finding a traditional fishing hook. “It was found on the top of the midden site, and quite exposed. We wandered down here and found this. We’d really gone to see the water pool,” Yvonne Kaiserglass, a heritage officer at Sydney Water, told ABC News. The site would have offered shelter, and is near a waterhole that could have provided eels and fish for food. Drawings depict eels, a spearhead, and a crescent-shaped moon. “These are hand stencils, and judging from the size of these, they would have been women and children. So you could imagine they’d be here, resting,” said Col. Davison from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. To see more Australian prehistoric art, see "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Wednesday, November 19

Europe’s Bronze Age Collapse Not Caused by Climate Change

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—The colder, wetter conditions that have been blamed for the population collapse in Europe at the end of the Bronze Age occurred two generations later, according to environmental scientists from the University of Bradford, the University of Leeds, University College Cork, and Queen’s University Belfast. The scientists used new statistical techniques to analyze more than 2,000 radiocarbon dates taken from hundreds of archaeological sites in Ireland. Then they compared the data to climate records from peat bogs in Ireland and evidence of climate change across northwest Europe between 1200 and 500 B.C. “Our evidence shows definitively that the population decline in this period cannot have been caused by climate change,” said Ian Armit of the University of Bradford. He thinks social and economic stress, caused by the transition to iron production, and the resulting collapse of copper and tin trade networks, led to conflict and population collapse. “Although climate change was not directly responsible for the collapse it is likely that the poor climatic conditions would have affected farming. This would have been particularly difficult for vulnerable communities, preventing population recovery for several centuries,” Armit said. To read about rituals that may have been practiced by Bronze Age people, see "The Wolf Rites of Winter."

New Research Suggests Neanderthals a Separate Species

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—A new study of the Neanderthal nasal complex suggests that Neanderthals were a distinct species separate from modern humans. Rather than comparing Neanderthal noses to those of modern Europeans and the Inuit, whose nasal complexes are adapted to cold and temperate climates, the scientists, led by Samuel Márquez of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, examined the nasal regions of diverse modern human population groups with 3-D coordinate data and CT imaging. They found that the Neanderthal upper respiratory tracts had a mosaic of features not found among any population of modern humans as a result of a separate evolutionary history. “The strength of this new research lies in its taking the totality of the Neanderthal nasal complex into account, rather than looking at a single feature. By looking at the complete morphological pattern, we can conclude that Neanderthals are our close relatives, but they are not us,” team member Jeffrey T. Laitman of the Icahn School of Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology told Science Daily. To read more about Neanderthal genetics, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Egyptian Tomb-Builders’ Bones Studied

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—The bones of the skilled Egyptian workers who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina show that they worked under grueling conditions in the Valley of the Kings, but written records indicate that they could take a paid sick day or receive a free checkup. Osteoarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University has compared those records to the skeletal evidence to get a better idea of how the tomb-builders lived. She saw the stress of the climb from the village to the Valley of the Kings in the form of arthritis in knees and ankles. In one case, she found evidence in the bones of a blood-borne infection, along with signs that the man continued to work while he was sick. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going,” she said. In another case, the remains of a young man with a disabled leg showed “no signs of other health issues, or of having lived a hard life. That suggests to me that they found a role for him in this community even though the predominant role, of working in the tombs, could not be met.” To read about how workers in the Valley of the Kings kept time, see "Artifact: A 19th-Dynasty Sundial."

Family Stele Unearthed near the Sacred Way

ATHENS, GREECE—According to The Greek Reporter, part of a carved marble grave stele dating to 400 B.C. was unearthed in the Kerameikos area of Athens by a team of scientists from the German Archaeological Institute at Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens. The figures on the stone, which is carved with the name “Dimostratos,” depict a woman sitting with a girl and another woman with a bearded man in the background. Scholars think the stele may have originally been placed in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos near the Sacred Gate, but was reused later as a door sill and then as a sewer cover under the Sacred Way in the sixth century A.D. To read about an eighth-century B.C. funerary stele unearthed in Turkey, see "Kuttamuwa's Soul."