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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, January 10

Detailed Frescos Discovered in Central China

HUNAN, CHINA—Xinhua News Agency reports that a multi-colored fresco depicting two maids has been discovered in a 1,400-year-old tomb in southern China. The tomb measures more than 45 feet long and six feet wide, and is thought to have been built during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, from A.D. 420 to 589. In the image, the young women are wearing long skirts and coats with open collars and exposed shoulders. “This is the oldest fresco tomb discovered in Hunan,” said Luo Shengqiang of the Chenzhou City cultural relic department. To read about another archaeological discovery in China, go to “Tomb from a Lost Tribe.”

Soil Analysis May Push Back Origins of Silk Production

HENAN PROVINCE, CHINA—Live Science reports that a team including archaeologist Decai Gong of the University of Science and Technology of China at Hefei discovered silk proteins in soil samples collected from two of three tombs at Jiahu, a 9,000-year-old archaeological site in central China. Silkworm breeding and silk weaving are thought to have begun in this region, which has a warm and humid climate suitable for growing mulberry trees, whose leaves are eaten by silkworms. One of the samples of silk proteins has been dated to 8,500 years ago, making it “the earliest evidence of silk in ancient China,” according to Gong. He and his team think the people buried in the tombs may have been wearing silk garments. “Jiahu’s residents possessed basic weaving and sewing skills,” Gong said, based on the discovery of bone needles and weaving tools at the site. “There is a possibility that the silk was made into fabric.” For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Well-Preserved Bacteria Found in Byzantine-Era Skeleton

MADISON, WISCONSIN—An international team of researchers has identified a case of maternal sepsis in a skeleton unearthed near the site of Troy, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Henrike Kiesewetter of Tüebingen University found two calcified nodules below the ribs of a woman who died some 800 years ago at about 30 years of age. Kiesewetter sent the nodules to microbiologist Caitlin Pepperell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who ruled out tuberculosis, and urinary or kidney stones, as possible diagnoses. She found well-preserved bacteria microfossils in the nodules, however, and sent them on to Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University for genetic analysis. Poinar identified Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Gardnerella vaginalis, which may have caused a fatal infection of the placenta, amniotic fluid, and membranes around the woman’s fetus. Pepperell explained that the high levels of calcium flowing through the pregnant woman’s body calcified the bacteria and formed the nodules. She added that this strain of Staphylococcus saprophyticus is usually associated with livestock, and may have been contracted through living in close quarters with animals. “I thought about what a short difficult life it must have been,” Pepperell said. For more, go to “Vikings, Worms, and Emphysema.”

Monday, January 09

Plain of Jars Captured in Virtual Reality

  MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Archaeologists have produced a virtual-reality re-creation of the Plain of Jars site in Laos, according to a report by Live Science. The re-creation is based on video captured by drones and geophysical data and records from archaeological excavations of a portion of the site, which includes hundreds of carved stone jars measuring up to 11 feet tall and weighing many tons. They range across a landscape that is riddled with unexploded bombs dating to the Vietnam War, and researchers hope the 3-D video simulation of the site, based at Monash University in Australia, will aid in study of areas that are otherwise inaccessible. The virtual-reality project will create a step-by-step record of a five-year archaeological investigation of the Plain of Jars that began in February 2016 and has uncovered the remains of dozens of people buried near the largest jars, establishing that they were linked to an ancient burial practice. “Long after we leave the field,” said Monash University archaeologist Louise Shewan, “we can continue researching, and we can actually be there with all our team members and go through the excavation again, and pick up on things that we've missed.” The virtual-reality version of the dig will also be valuable for teaching students, as it allows one to view the excavation unfolding in fast motion, with the trench deepening in 4-inch increments. To read in-depth about the Plain of Jars, go to “Letter from Laos: A Singular Landscape.”

Tomb Unearthed in Northern Iraq

ROWANDUZ, IRAQ—A 2,400-year-old tomb containing the remains of at least six people has been excavated in northern Iraq. Boston University archaeologist Michael Danti told Live Science that the tomb probably dates to end of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, around 330 B.C. The bones were scattered, suggesting the tomb was likely robbed sometime in antiquity, although the team did find bronze earrings and a bronze bracelet depicting two serpents, a popular motif during the Achaemenid period. Despite those finds, Danti believes pottery from the tomb suggests it belonged to people of modest means. Sometime during the Islamic period the site was reused, and at least five skeletons were buried above the original six occupants of the tomb. To read more about archaeology in northern Iraq, go to “Erbil Revealed.”

Evidence of 15th-Century Throwaway Society Found in Germany

WITTENBERG, GERMANY—Pieces of disposable ceramic cups dating to the fifteenth century have been found in an excavation of the courtyard of Wittenberg Palace in eastern Germany, according to a report in Deutsche Welle. Archaeologists believe that the sherds are evidence of outdoor parties at which guests ate wild venison and drank copiously. "We found entire layers of cups and animal bones," said archaeologist Holger Rode. “The parties took place in the summer here in the courtyard. The cups were simply thrown away. That's equivalent to paper cups today." These disposable cups were used only by those of extreme wealth, Rode adds. In addition to the scraps of cups, the excavation has unearthed parts of a curtain wall, remains of an earlier castle, and the original tiles from the later castle’s oven. To read about another discovery in Wittenberg, go to “Artifact: Tally Stick.”

Neolithic Artifacts Discovered in Scotland

KINCAPLE, SCOTLAND—The Courier reports that Neolithic pottery and stone tools were unearthed during installation of a pipeline connecting St. Andrews University to a satellite campus. According to archaeologist Alastair Rees of ARCHAS Ltd, the company monitoring the work, the tools were made from flint that was likely quarried far to the south, in England. “The artifacts provide more evidence of long distance trade, contacts, and especially ideas across the country,” said Rees. Preliminary analysis of the tools shows they were likely used for skinning hides or stripping bark from trees. In one large pit, the engineers also found 30 sherds of grooved pottery of a type thought to be associated with ritual offerings. To read in depth about the Neolithic people of Scotland, go to “Neolithic Europe’s Remote Heart.”   

Friday, January 06

New Dates May Push Back Possible Settlement of the Tibetan Plateau

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA—Live Science reports that a team of researchers led by geologist Michael Meyer of the University of Innsbruck obtained new dates for hand and footprints left in the mud of a hot spring at the high-altitude Chusang site in Tibet. The 19 prints were discovered in 1998, and initial studies suggested they were left some 20,000 years ago. Meyer and his colleagues used uranium-thorium dating to date the sediments, optically stimulated luminescence to date quartz crystals in the layer containing the prints, and radiocarbon dating of microscopic plant remains. The new tests suggest that the prints were made between 7,400 and 12,600 years ago—a date range that encompasses the results of genetic testing indicating that people were living on Tibet’s high central plateau at least 8,000 to 8,400 years ago. Meyer thinks that hunter-gatherers may have lived in the region year-round, since traveling to Chusang would have been a long and arduous trip. “There is a chance that there are older sites up here,” Meyer said. “I think we have to keep exploring.” For more, go to “England's Oldest Footprints.”