Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, May 21

Hundreds of Gaming Pieces Unearthed in Utah Cave

EDMONTON, CANADA—A cave on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake has yielded butchered bison and elk bones and hundreds of child-sized moccasins made by the members of the Promontory culture in the late thirteenth century. Now archaeologist John Ives of the University of Alberta is studying dice, hoops, and carved pieces of cane from the cave that are thought to have been used for gambling. “The numbers and diversity of gaming artifacts that we see in the Promontory record are unparalleled in western North America,” Ives told Western Digs. Many of the gaming pieces were discovered around a central hearth near the entrance to the cave, in what was probably a social, domestic space. “The propensity of the Promontory people for gaming signifies a genuine interest in engaging in peaceful interactions with neighbors extending over the far-flung area in which they ranged,” added University of Alberta’s Gabriel Yanicki, who has studied historical accounts of games played with similar objects. To read about a famous collection of figurines found in Utah, go to "Investigating a Decades-Old Disappearance."

Saxon Butter-Churn Lid Found in England

STAFFORD, ENGLAND—Carbon dating has revealed that the lid to a butter churn unearthed during construction work in Staffordshire dates to the early medieval period, between A.D. 715 and 890. “During this period this part of Staffordshire was part of the Mercian heartland and was populated by a pagan tribe called the Pencersaete. Existing knowledge of this period for the north and east of the Midlands and the UK in general is very scarce, so this find is fantastic and of regional significance,” senior archaeologist Emma Tetlow of Headland Archaeology told The Staffordshire Newsletter. To read more about Anglo-Saxon England, go to "The Kings of Kent."

Farmers’ Reduced Mobility Led to Lighter Bones

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—A recent study of the bones of hundreds of people who lived in Europe over the past 33,000 years suggests that the rise of agriculture and the corresponding reduced mobility led to a change in human bones. Christopher Ruff of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a team of researchers from Europe and the United States took molds of arm and leg bones in museum collections and scanned them with portable x-ray machines. “By comparing the lower limbs with the upper limbs, which are little affected by how much walking or running a person does, we could determine whether the changes we saw were due to mobility or to something else, like nutrition,” Ruff said in a press release. The team found that leg-bone strength began to decline in the Mesolithic era, some 10,000 years ago, while arm bone strength remained fairly steady. “The decline continued for thousands of years, suggesting that people had a very long transition from the start of agriculture to a completely settled lifestyle. But by the medieval period, bones were about the same strength as they are today.” To read more about the evolution of human limbs, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Denmark’s Egtved Girl May Have Been Born in Germany

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Isotopic analysis of the preserved hair, teeth, and nails of the Egtved Girl show that she had not been born in Egtved, Denmark, where her partial remains were discovered in a Bronze Age barrow in 1921. Analysis of the strontium isotopes in one of her first molars shows that she had been born outside of Denmark, and when combined with the strontium isotopic signatures obtained from her clothing, scientists were able to pinpoint her place of origin to the Black Forest of southern Germany. Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum of Denmark and the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen was also able to track the girl’s last journeys through an analysis of the strontium isotopic signatures in her long hair. “Neither her hair nor her thumb nail contains a strontium isotopic signatures which indicates that she returned to Scandinavia until very shortly before she died. As an area’s strontium isotopic signature is only detectable in human hair and nails after a month, she must have come to Denmark, and Egtved, about a month before she passed away,” Frei explained in a press release. To read more about prehistoric burials in Scandinavia, go to "Bog Bodies Rediscovered." 

Wednesday, May 20

More on the World’s Oldest Tools from Lomekwi 3

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Stone tools from northern Kenya have been dated to 3.3 million years ago, making them 700,000 years older than Oldowan artifacts. Louise Leakey and her team at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) created 3-D laser scans of the Lomekwi 3 tools to reveal very fine details on their surfaces. “The tools are much larger than later Oldowan tools, and we can see from the scars left on them when they were being made that the techniques used were more rudimentary, requiring holding the stone in two hands or resting the stone on an anvil when hitting it with a hammerstone,” Sonia Harmand of TBI, Stony Brook University, and the West Turkana Archaeological Project (WTAP) said in Stony Brook University Happenings. Harmand and her colleague Jason Lewis discovered the site while looking for early stone tools in a dry riverbed along the western shore of Lake Turkana. Yet no hominin fossils or cut-marked bones have been found at the site, so the team isn’t sure who made the tools or how they were used. “Many have expected the threshold of stone tool-making to be pushed back in time, but the Lomekwi excavations really do represent a major advance in our understanding,” commented Richard Leakey, chair of TBI. For another recent discovery, see "Neanderthal Tool Time."

The Origins of Madagascar’s Dogs

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Peter Savolainen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology looked for traces of Indonesian ancestry in modern dogs from Madagascar, but found no connection to the pets of ancient Austronesian migrants. “Dogs, together with pigs and chickens, were important domestic animals in the Austronesian culture. So it would be expected that dogs were brought in the colonization of major new areas, and a seemingly total absence in Madagascar of dogs with Austronesian heritage is surprising,” he said in a press release. Madagascar’s human population has a high diversity of maternal and paternal lineages of Indonesian origin, however. Those migrants are thought to have traveled with domesticated pigs, chickens, and their dogs, whose genes have been detected in dogs in Hawaii, Southeast Asia, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand. “It is possible that if the dogs were brought along on these long journeys, they died from the hardship, or were used as a food source,” Savolainen speculated. For more on the archaeology of dogs, see "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Navy Divers Recover Civil War-Era Ironclad

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA—The wreckage of the CSS Georgia is being recovered by Navy divers to make way for the expansion of a shipping channel as part of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. The ironclad gunboat was launched in 1863, but it was too heavy to travel under its own steam and leaked badly. The vessel was moored some five miles from Savannah and was scuttled by Confederate forces as Union troops seized the city in 1864. Sections of the wreckage will be recovered in segments from the muddy river bottom because they are too large to handle, and special precautions are being taken to handle the ship’s projectiles and ordnance. “You’re dealing with something that’s been down there for 150 years; I can’t imagine that any part will be easy,” Navy Diver 2nd Class Jonny Pounders told 13 News Now. The project is expected to take two months to complete. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Tuesday, May 19

8,000-Year-Old Village Unearthed in Bulgaria

SOFIA, BULGARIA—Sixty houses have been unearthed at a Neolithic settlement by archaeologists working ahead of road construction in southwestern Bulgaria. The 8,000-year-old planned settlement had three parallel, wide streets set between two-story houses made of wooden frames and clay. The walls of the houses are thought to have been preserved by fires set within the structures. Pieces of the houses have also been found in small burial pits. “We can assume that there was a string of problems connected with the corresponding cycle of life and perhaps they wanted to break this cycle, to complete it and start a new cycle of life elsewhere, and therefore burnt the village,” lead archaeologist Vassil Nikolov told The Sofia Globe. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Genetic Study Identifies Young Paternal Lineages in Europe

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, geneticists from the University of Leicester sequenced DNA from the Y chromosomes of 334 men from 17 populations in Europe and the Middle East. Using new methods for analyzing DNA variation and the timing of population events, the team, led by Mark Jobling and Chiara Batini, found that two out of three modern European men have descended from just three paternal lineages that branch out from the genealogical tree of European Y chromosomes. The study also suggests that this explosion in the size of the male population occurred between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. “The population expansion falls within the Bronze Age, which involved changes in burial practices, the spread of horse-riding, and developments in weaponry. Dominant males linked with these cultures could be responsible for the Y-chromosome patterns we see today,” Jobling said in a press release. It had been thought from previous genetic studies that the population expansion occurred at an earlier time. “Given the cultural complexity of the Bronze Age, it’s difficult to link a particular event to the population growth that we infer. But Y-chromosome DNA sequences from skeletal remains are becoming available, and this will help us to understand what happened, and when,” added Batini. To read in-depth about Europe's first great Bronze Age civilization, see "The Minoans of Crete."

Size of Domestic Animals Linked to Farming Practices

VIZCAYA, SPAIN—The remains of more than 2,500 domestic cows, sheep, and pigs from 41 archaeological sites across the Iberian Peninsula were measured and analyzed by Idoia Grau-Sologestoa of the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country. She found that the size of domestic animals is linked to livestock management practices over time. “The increase in animal size is normally linked to improvements of an environmental type (for example to new ways of feeding) or of a genetic type (for example, by importing larger animals). Larger domestic animal size entails a number of economic advantages with an increase in meat production or traction strength. What is more, improved domestic animals tend to grow faster which helps to increase their productivity,” she explained in a press release. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the size of domestic animals did not undergo significant changes, and between the eighth and ninth centuries, domestic animals were actually smaller, perhaps because of the semi-free foraging practices of the Early Middle Ages, as confirmed by the analysis of stable isotopes in cattle bones. But the size of domestic animals, especially sheep, has been increasing since the Late Middle Ages. “This increase is linked to the importance of sheep husbandry in this period not only for meat production but also to take advantage of the wool and milk of these animals,” she said. Grau-Sologestoa will soon examine the changes in livestock management during the transition to the modern era. To read more, see "The Origins of Domestic Cattle."