Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, August 17

Excavation Underway at Montana Fort

FORT BENTON, MONTANA—The Great Falls Tribune reports that an archaeological dig is underway to determine where the southwest blockhouse of Fort Benton stood so that it can be rebuilt. The fort, which was established in 1847 by the American Fur Company to provide access to the local fur trade, originally had two blockhouses, or defensive towers, that stood at opposite ends. The fort was sold to the Northwest Fur Company in 1865, and it was taken over by the United States Army four years later. The fort’s northeast blockhouse is thought to be the oldest building in Montana, but the southwest one was dismantled upward of 120 years ago, and its bricks were used to build nearby houses and buildings. When floods came in 1908, its remaining pieces were used to help build a levee. The blockhouses were equipped with slits to fire through and thick walls for protection, though the fort was in a relatively safe spot compared with others on the frontier. To read more, go to “Letter from Montana: The Buffalo Chasers.”

Researchers Hope to Track Ancient Solar Storms

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Researchers are proposing a new approach to dendrochronology, the dating method that utilizes ancient tree rings, according to a report in The Guardian. Japanese scientist Fusya Miyake had previously used ancient tree rings to identify an unusual spike in radiocarbon activity at A.D. 775, which she concluded was caused by a violent solar storm. A subsequent "Miyake event" was also identified at A.D. 994. Now Oxford University scientists Michael Dee and Benjamin Pope hope to search the dendrochronological record for similar spikes. “There must be more of these events and we will try and find where we should look for them," says Dee. Identifying more Miyake events could help archaeologists refine so-called "floating chronologies," or records not tied to calendar years, such as those currently used to date events in Old Kingdom Egypt and the Bronze Age. To read about another novel approach to dating, go to “Nondestructive Radiocarbon Dating.” 

Shipwrecks in Southern England Protected

DEVON, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that three shipwrecks in England have been given official government protection based on the advice of maritime archaeology experts. They include a wreck thought to be the remains of the Sally, which ran aground on the north coast of Devon with a shipment of port wine from Portugal in September 1769. Its decaying timbers are visible during the lowest tides of the year on a stretch of beach that has since been renamed “Westward Ho!” to attract fans of a Victorian novel of the same name. “The timbers are exceptionally well preserved, giving the whole outline of the ship,” says Mark Dunkley, a maritime archaeologist with Historic England, “and they match the unusual circumstances of the loss of the Sally, which was driven stern first on to the beach.” One of the other wrecks granted protection, a small eighteenth-century merchant ship, is nearby. Farther away, on the south coast, is the wreck of a boat dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Its well-preserved timbers reveal some of the techniques used to build it, and some contents, including a wooden bowl, have been found intact inside it. To read about a wreck discovered in the Arctic, go to “Franklin’s Last Voyage.”

Elaborate Tomb Discovered in China

DATONG, CHINA—LiveScience reports that an excavation in northern China conducted ahead of a construction project revealed the elaborate 1,500-year-old burial of a high-status woman. According to a stone epitaph found at the entrance to the tomb, it held the remains of a woman named Han Farong who was the wife of a magistrate and lived at a time when the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-534) ruled the area. Farong was buried with a necklace made up of some 5,000 beads, as well as gold earrings inlaid with gemstones that depict dragons and human faces. The style of the earrings is similar to artifacts discovered in Afghanistan in 1978, suggesting some degree of contact between the regions at the time. To read about another dramatic burial discovered in China, go to “Tomb from a Lost Tribe.” 

Tuesday, August 16

Roman Artifacts Unearthed at English Nursery

NORFOLK, ENGLAND—An excavation in a field next to a nursery in the town of Aylsham has turned up two pottery kilns, thousands of broken pots, late Roman coins, and pieces of jewelry, according to a report in the Eastern Daily Press. Among the most notable finds is a piece of kiln lining with the finger and thumbprints of its Roman maker clearly visible. Archaeologists believe that the nursery is on the site of a Roman villa that included a bathhouse. John Davies, chief curator and keeper of archaeology with Norfolk Museums Service, notes that the site provides insight into what rural Norfolk was like in Roman times, as contrasted with urban sites such as Caistor and St. Edmund. The presence of the kilns also raises questions. “It’s very interesting—were the kilns a small-scale industry or were they serving the villa?” asks Davies. To read about another Roman site in England, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”

3,000-Year-Old Brain Surgery Reconstructed

KANSK, RUSSIA—Siberian archaeologists have completed their study of a skull belonging to a man who died between the ages of 30 and 40 that was discovered last year at a Bronze Age burial ground in the region of Krasnoyarsk. The Siberian Times reports the skull bore obvious traces of trepanation, or brain surgery, which in ancient times was carried out for both medical and ritual reasons. In this case, the researchers suspect the trepanation was likely medical in nature, and that although the patient survived the surgery and lived for a time afterwards, he may have died because of post-operative inflammation. In reconstructing the incisions made in the skull, the researchers suspect the "surgeon" had an assistant helping complete the procedure. To read more about archaeology in Siberia, go to “Fortress of Solitude.”

Obsidian Tools Found by Oregon Landowner

PORTLAND, OREGON—Archaeologists have unearthed an unusual collection of obsidian tools after being tipped off by a landowner in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, according to a report from OPB. The landowner, a math and science teacher, came across 14 of the tools while digging out a spring on his property. He contacted state archaeologist John Pouley who identified them as bifaces that could be converted with some work into scrapers, spearpoints, or arrowheads. Pouley estimated that the tools dated back 1,000 to 4,000 years and came from the Santiam Band of the Kalapuya people. In a June excavation, attended by some of the landowner’s students, archaeologists found a fifteenth biface along with other stone tools. The artifacts were determined to have come from a quarry called Obsidian Cliffs 80 miles away in the Cascade Mountains. The bifaces did not have any flakes missing, so it appears that whoever transported them from the quarry was planning to sell them. “It seems likely that this was part of a trade network and these themselves were commodities,” said Pouley. For more on archaeology in Oregon, go to “Site of a Forgotten War.”

Monday, August 15

Bog Clothing Analyzed

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new method has demonstrated an ability to determine what types of animal were used to make clothing worn by people preserved in bogs for thousands of years, according to a report in ScienceNordic. The method, tested by a team including Luise Brandt of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, involves examining proteins in the garments to determine the species of animal used to make them. The researchers looked at 12 samples from the National Museum of Denmark’s collection of garments discovered in bogs, all of which are around 2,000 years old. They identified two samples as coming from cattle, three from goats, six from sheep, and one from either sheep or goat. The results indicate that Iron Age garments were largely made from domesticated animals, not wild ones as suggested by popular lore. One garment was determined to have been made from calf leather based on the presence of a type of hemoglobin found only in the final months of pregnancy and the first three months after birth. “We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt. To read more about bodies preserved in bogs, go to “Bog Bodies Rediscovered.”

Chariot Racing Mosaic Discovered in Cyprus

  NICOSIA, CYPRUS—Archaeologists have fully unearthed a fourth-century A.D. Roman-era mosaic depicting a chariot race, reports the Cyprus Mail. Discovered outside the modern capital of Nicosia, the mosaic depicts four chariots competing against one another. Each rider and team of horses is accompanied by two inscriptions, which may be the names of the charioteer and one of the horses. The mosaic also depicts a man on horseback and two standing figures, one bearing a whip and the other holding a water vessel. According to Marina Ieronymidou, the director of the country's Department of Antiquities, the mosaic is the only one found in Cyprus depicting a chariot race. Excavations at the site will continue, and a temporary structure will be erected over the mosaic to protect it from the elements. To see more ancient depictions of horses, go to “Sport and Spectacle.”  

Heated Roman Villa Excavated in England

  LUFTON, ENGLAND—Archaeologists excavating a Roman villa in Southwest England have unearthed a semi-circular room that was equipped with a heating system under its floor. According to SomsersetLive, researchers suspect the villa was used as a country retreat by several generations of officials from the nearby Roman town of Ilchester, who would have expected a certain level of comfort. Previous excavations showed the villa had a bath surrounded by elaborate mosaics, and revealed evidence that after the Roman period ended squatters probably lived there. The team currently working at the site, led by University of Newcastle archaeologist James Gerrard, hopes to discover another mosaic soon when they remove the fallen roof now lying atop one of the villa's rooms. To read about another discovery dating to Britain’s Roman era, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”