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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, October 24

Great Basilica Yields Medieval Fresco Fragment

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA—The Sofia Globe reports that archaeologists excavating the northern nave of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv have uncovered a fragment of a medieval painting thought to depict Peter, the Christian saint. The original church on the site had been located in the center of the ancient city of Philippopolis, and dates to the beginning of the fifth century A.D. The structure is thought to have been destroyed by invaders in the sixth century. Eighteen medieval burials, including the remains of children and a possible priest, were recently found resting on the original building’s mosaic floors. The excavators think the fine quality of the medieval fresco suggests it was probably part of a mural painted in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries by a master from Constantinople. The excavation team also found a donor inscription near the mural, written in Greek, bearing the name “Avram.” For more on archaeology in Bulgaria, go to “Thracian Treasure Chest.”

2,500-Year-Old Cannabis Plants Found in Northwestern China

BEIJING, CHINA—Live Science reports that 13 Cannabis plants were discovered covering a man’s body in a 2,500-year-old burial located in the large Jiayi cemetery in arid northwestern China. About 35 years old at the time of death, the man was placed on a wooden bed with a reed pillow. The root-ends of the Cannabis plants were placed over his pelvis, so that the leaves reached his chin on the left side of his face. Hongen Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his team suggest the burial occurred in the late summer, since the plants bore immature fruit. They also suggest that the lack of hemp clothing and rope in the burial, and the large size of the plants’ seeds, indicate that they were grown for their psychoactive properties. Pottery from the cemetery suggests that it belonged to the Subeixi culture of the Turpan Basin. Processed Cannabis flowers were found in another Subeixi graveyard in 2006. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Child’s Rattle Unearthed in Siberia

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that a child’s toy has been unearthed at the site of a Bronze Age settlement in Siberia. The 4,000-year-old rattle was made by sealing small stones in clay shaped as a bear’s head. Archaeologist Vyacheslav Molodin of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Russian Academy of Sciences explained that the artifact will be X-rayed to try to determine what kind of stones were used to make the rattle. He added that the rattle is believed to bear a stamp including a drawing made when the clay was still wet. The settlement has also yielded a figurine shaped like a bird that may have been used as an incense stand. For more, go to “Letter from Siberia: Fortress of Solitude.”

Friday, October 21

Island Chiefdom May Offer Insight Into Complex Societies

DALLAS, TEXAS—Fox News reports that Mark McCoy of Southern Methodist University and his team calculated the age of Nan Madol, a capital ruled by a single chief on the Pacific island of Pohnpei. Using uranium-thorium dating, the researchers found that the tomb where Nan Madol’s first chief was buried dates back to A.D. 1180, or about 100 years earlier than similar tombs elsewhere in the Pacific. McCoy described Nan Madol as the first site in the remote Pacific islands to serve as a seat of political power, religious rituals, and monumental burial. This information could help researchers understand how human societies evolved more complex, hierarchical systems. “The main finding here was the discovery of strong archaeological evidence of [the] rise of the first chiefs to rule the island,” McCoy said. “Something that of course is described in Pohnpei’s own oral histories, but with the results described in our new paper, can now be compared to other islands in the Pacific and societies around the world.” To read in-depth about another Pacific island, go to “Letter From the Marshall Islands: Defuzing the Past.”

Possible Third 16th-Century Ship Found in Florida Waters

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—The Pensacola News Journal reports that archaeologists and students from the University of West Florida have found a third shipwreck in Pensacola Bay. All three ships are thought to have been part of Don Tristan de Luna’s expedition, which included 11 ships and 1,500 people sent to colonize Florida for Spain. One month after Luna arrived in 1559 on the northern Gulf Coast, a hurricane sank many of the ships and wiped out much of the expedition’s supplies. The newly discovered ship, found in shallower water than the two previously discovered, may have been La Salvadora, a smaller ship that had been built in the New World. “We’ll take the wood sample soon and see what it’s made out of,” said historian John Worth, who has been studying the Luna settlement, which was discovered last year. “Is it a New World species or Old World species? If it turned out to be [La Salvadora] that would be really exciting, because that would be the earliest ship built in the New World that’s documented,” he explained. So far, the team has found ballast stones, iron concretions, an articulated hull, planking, and ceramics. The Luna expedition ended in 1561, when Spanish ships rescued the surviving colonists and returned them to Mexico. For more, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”

Homo Habilis May Have Been Right Handed

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—HealthDay News reports that University of Kansas professor emeritus David Frayer has found evidence of right-handedness in a Homo habilis specimen. He and his team conducted experiments to re-create scratch marks similar to the ones found on 1.8-million-year-old Homo habilis teeth found in Tanzania. Most of the marks, located on the lip side of the specimen’s upper front teeth, veer from the left down to the right. The team members suggest that the marks were made when the hominin used a stone tool, held in the right hand, to cut food held with the teeth and the left hand. Frayer explained that Homo habilis was already thought to have had lateralization of the brain, meaning that each side of the brain has functional specializations for tasks such as handedness and language. Further research could show that how the brain is organized may be important in identifying the origins of human ancestors. For more, go to “Earliest Stone Tools.”

Thursday, October 20

Cache of 8,000-Year-Old Animal Bones Found in Mexico

NUEVO LEÓN, MEXICO—Prensa Latina reports that archaeologist Araceli Rivera of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has found animal remains that may have been used in rituals some 8,000 years ago. The remains include the teeth, long bones, skulls, ribs, and vertebrae of mammoths, camels, horses, llamas, and prehistoric bison. The bones had been placed in a rock shelter and covered with a rectangular stone that researchers have dubbed La Boveda, or The Vault. The researchers think The Vault may have been illuminated during the winter solstice, at a time when food may have been scarce. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Possible Evidence of Roman Attack Found in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Guardian reports that Rina Avner and Kfir Arbib of the Israel Antiquities Authority have found evidence of a 2,000-year-old watchtower and a wall that protected a “new” area of Jerusalem that had developed outside of the city’s two existing defensive walls. The Jewish historian Josephus described Titus’s breach of such a third wall in A.D. 70, when Roman legions invaded, sacked the city, and destroyed the Second Temple. Large stones that the Romans may have fired from catapults at the sentries in the tower have also been uncovered. It is thought that Roman forces used battering rams on the wall while the catapults provided cover. To read about another discovery in Jerusalem, go to “Rubaiyat Pot.”

New Thoughts on Ancient Stone Flakes

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Live Science reports that capuchin monkeys living in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park have been observed banging rocks against one another, an action that produces a cobble with a single flat side that is called a “unifacial chopper” by archaeologists. Unifacial choppers bear telltale scallop-shell-shaped breakages called conchoidal fractures. It had been thought that such modified stones were only made by hominins. According to observations made during the study, the monkeys sometimes lick the rocks, perhaps to ingest lichens or minerals, but they don’t use them as tools. Instead, they use other rocks to break open nuts. Researcher Tomos Proffitt of the University of Oxford says the study shows that modern primates can produce some types of artifacts that have until now been attributed to hominins alone, and will require scientists to rethink how they determine whether a stone tool was made by a human ancestor or human relative. For more, go to “The Neolithic Toolkit.”