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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, December 02

Dutch Authorities Return Sculpture to Italy

ROME, ITALY—The Associated Press reports that Dutch police returned a second-century marble sculpture of the Roman empress Giulia Domna to Italian authorities at a ceremony in Amsterdam. The 12-inch head is thought to have been plundered from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli in 2012. Two people have been charged with the theft and with trying to sell the sculpture at an auction in Amsterdam. Carabinieri Major Massimo Maresca said that the auction house alerted Italian authorities. For more, go to “Rome's Imperial Port.”

Roman Ruler of Judea Named in 1,900-Year-Old Inscription

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The Times of Israel reports that the name of a Roman ruler of Judea has been found in a 1,900-year-old inscription by scholars from the University of Haifa. Gargilius Antiques is now thought to have ruled over Judea in the years prior to the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, which was fought between 132 and 136 A.D. The seven-line inscription, carved on a 1,300-pound rock, was found underwater at the site of Tel Dor, an ancient port city on the Mediterranean Sea. The rock may have been a statue base. “This is ... just the second time that the mention of Judea has been discovered in inscriptions traced back to the Roman era,” noted Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University. To read more about underwater archaeology in Israel, go to “Sun and Moon.”

2,000-Year-Old Pet Cemetery Unearthed in Egypt

NEWARK, DELAWARE—USA Today reports that a 2,000-year-old pet cemetery has been discovered near a trash heap at the archaeological site of Berenike, a remote Roman port town on the Red Sea. The remains of dogs, monkeys, and cats have been unearthed. Some of the carcasses had been carefully placed under mats or jars. A few of them were wearing iron collars, some of which were decorated with ostrich-shell beads. Marta Osypińska of the Polish Academy of Sciences notes that the necks of the cats were not twisted, as the necks of cats mummified for ritual reasons often were. The remains of a mastiff-like dog suffering from bone cancer was found to have eaten a final meal of fish and goat, before its body was wrapped in a basket and covered with pieces of pottery. The dog is thought to have been imported from Greece or Rome, and was “a very loved animal,” said Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware. “What makes this unique is (despite) the very rough circumstances in which these people are living, they still manage to find the time and effort to have companion animals with them,” he said. For more, go to “Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt.”

U.S. Repatriates Artifacts to Egypt

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Five artifacts seized by federal agents have been handed over to Egyptian officials in a ceremony at the Egyptian embassy in Washington D.C. by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a report from ABC News. The objects, including a child’s wooden sarcophagus, a mummy shroud, and a mummified hand, were recovered during investigations based in New York and Los Angeles. Dubbed “Operation Mummy’s Curse” and “Operation Mummy’s Hand,” the investigations uncovered a network of smugglers, importers, money launderers, restorers, and purchasers. The agents traced the artifacts and money to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Iraq, France, and other nations. Yasser Reda, Egyptian ambassador to the United States, praised the agents for their efforts, saying that their work is essential to the preservation of the world's ancient cultures. For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

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Thursday, December 01

Where Did “Lucy” Spend Her Time?

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—A report in The Washington Post suggests that the early human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, which had hips, feet, and legs suitable for walking, and ape-like long arms with curved fingers, probably spent a significant amount of time in trees. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and his colleagues compared X-ray microtomography scans of Lucy, the 3.18-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil specimen, with scans of the arm and leg bones of modern chimpanzees and modern humans. The results indicate that Lucy’s arms were not as strong as a chimp’s, but were significantly stronger than those of a modern human. “If she evolved from a more arboreal ancestor, she may just not have had the time yet to evolve a shorter upper limb,” Ruff said. “We have to look at traits that changed during her life depending on how she used that part of her skeleton—that’s real evidence of what someone was actually doing.” He thinks that Australopithecus afarensis may have climbed trees at night to find a safe place to sleep. But critics note that Lucy lacked a climber’s opposable big toe, and suggest that there could be other explanations for her arm strength. For more on members of the Australopithecus genus, go to “The Human Mosaic.”

Temple Dedicated to Wind God Found in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—A circular platform unearthed at a construction site in Mexico City was part of a temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind, according to a report in The Guardian. The white stucco temple, built by the Mexica-Tlatelolca people some 650 years ago, was round on three sides, had a rectangular platform on the fourth, and was located within a large ceremonial site in the ancient city of Tlatelolco. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History also uncovered bird bones, obsidian, maguey cactus spines, ceramic figurines of monkeys and duck bills, and the remains of an infant at the temple site, which will be preserved within the new construction. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Lumps of Bitumen Identified in Sutton Hoo Boat Burial

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a team of scientists from the British Museum and the University of Aberdeen analyzed lumps of organic material found in the boat burial at Sutton Hoo. Excavated in 1939 in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the East of England, the lavish, seventh-century boat burial contained a ceremonial helmet, a shield and sword, and gold and gemstone dress fittings. It had been thought that the lumps were pine tar, which is made from trees and can be used for boat maintenance. The study revealed, however, that the lumps are bitumen, a petroleum product. Chemical fossils within the samples “show this material comes from the Dead Sea family of bitumens, perhaps sourced in Syria,” explained Stephen Bowden of the University of Aberdeen. The bitumen pieces were probably obtained through the extensive Anglo-Saxon trade network, and may have been part of another object that has not survived. For more on archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon period, go to “The Kings of Kent.”

Wednesday, November 30

Mummified Legs May Have Been Queen Nefertari’s

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Seeker reports that a pair of mummified legs housed at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, may have belonged to Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramses II, who is thought to have ruled Egypt between 1290 and 1224 B.C. Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens was plundered and her mummy damaged in antiquity. In 1904, Italian archaeologist and diplomat Ernesto Schiaparelli found fragments of her pink granite sarcophagus, a well-made pair of sandals, and the two fragmented, mummified legs. The new study determined the legs belonged to a woman who stood about five feet, five inches tall, may have had arteriosclerosis, and died between 40 and 60 years of age. Radiocarbon testing of the legs, however, yielded a date some 200 years earlier than when Nefertari is thought to have lived. “A discrepancy between radiocarbon dating and Egyptian chronology models has long been debated,” said Egyptologist Michael Habicht of the University of Zurich. “Indeed, some question[s] on the chronological model of the New Kingdom may now arise.” The researchers think it is likely that the remains belong to Nefertari. There is some possiblility that mudslides and heavy rains could have washed someone else’s legs into her tomb, they note, though this is unlikely as it is located on high ground. For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Early Burial Rituals Studied in Brazil

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—According to a report in Live Science, a team led by André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is investigating some of the earliest burial rituals in the New World at the site of Lapa do Santo in east-central Brazil. Some 10,600 years ago, the dead were buried intact within the large limestone cave. Then, about 1,000 years later, Strauss and his colleagues say, fresh corpses were dismembered and defleshed before burial. Even teeth were removed from skulls. Marks on some of the bones indicate that they were burned or even cannibalized before being placed inside a skull and buried without gravestones or grave goods. Some 8,000 years ago, burial practices changed again, and bones were not manipulated—the scientists found pits filled with the disarticulated bones of single individuals. Strauss suggests the changing ritual behaviors indicate that the groups living in the region of Lapa do Santo were more diverse and sophisticated than had been believed. For more, go to “Off the Grid: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”

Priest Hole Mapped in English Tudor Country House

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reports that a research team led by Chris King, Lukasz Bonenbergand, and Sean Ince of the University of Nottingham has used new scanning technology to produce a 3-D map of a priest hole hidden at Coughton Court, a Tudor country house in Warwickshire. A priest hole was a concealed, secret chamber where a Catholic priest could hide during the religious persecution that followed the English Reformation in the seventeenth century. The priest hole at Coughton Court was first found in a turret of the main gatehouse in the 1850s. It contained a rope ladder, bedding, and a portable altar. “At Coughton, the priest hole is hidden away out of sight, and the 3-D model will really help visitors to understand where it fits inside the building,” King said. For more, go to “Letter from England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Fourteenth-Century Plague Pit Unearthed in England

LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND—Estimates suggest that up to half of England’s population died of the Black Death between 1346 and 1353. The Independent reports that a team of archaeologists has unearthed a mass grave at the monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey, in the East of England. The remains of 48 people, including more than 20 children, were found in the grave. DNA testing of tooth pulp obtained from the skeletons has revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague. Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield explained that the team did not expect to find a mass burial in rural Lincolnshire. The discovery suggests that the small community was overwhelmed by the number of deaths caused by the epidemic. The team also uncovered a Tau Cross pendant in the hospital building. Willmott said that some believed that the Tau Cross could cure skin diseases. Symptoms of the Black Death include egg-shaped lumps in the groin, neck, and armpits that can ooze pus and blood, as well as black spots of gangrenous flesh. For more, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Southwestern Clay Figurines Studied

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Western Digs reports that Mark Chenault of Westland Resources found a cache of clay figurines at a pre-contact village site in the Sonoran Desert. Only a few similar objects have been found in the Southwest. It had been proposed that the “long, bulbous objects” were used in ancestor veneration or even as children’s toys, but the new research suggests that they were used as tokens of fertility employing both male and female symbolism. The phallus-shaped figures measure between 2.75 and four inches long, and sometimes have human features, such as eyes, breasts, or braided hair. “I believe that they could have been used for both human fertility and agricultural fertility,” Chenault said. “However, I think that the sexual characteristics argue more strongly for their use in human puberty or fertility rites.” He explained that the concept of sexual duality has been found in cultures from the same time period in Mesoamerica, and those ideas may have been shared by people living over a wide area. To read more about archaeology in the Sonoran Desert, go to “Early Irrigators - Tucson, Arizona.”

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