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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, December 16

Agricultural Practices Contributed to Tikal’s Decline

CINCINNATI, OHIO—The many residents of the Maya city of Tikal, located in Guatemala, would not have been able to import enough food to meet their needs without draft animals, wheeled vehicles, or navigable waterways. A team led by David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati analyzed surveys, satellite imagery, archaeological information, forest growth data, and pollen data. Phys.org reports the team determined that Tikal’s residents employed intensive agricultural practices, such as terracing, irrigation, and slash-and-burn cultivation to sustain the population’s growth during the Late Classic Period, from 600 to 850 A.D. But these methods rely on consistent annual rainfall, and the effects of a dry period in the middle ninth century may have been exacerbated by the clearing of forests and the pavement of large areas. Lentz and his colleagues conclude that by the late ninth century, the system could no longer provide enough food, fuel, and drinking water for the population and Tikal was abandoned. For laser scans of Tikal's monuments, see "The Past in High-Def."

Khirbet Summeily Yields 10th-Century B.C. Clay Seals

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI—Six clay seals unearthed at Khirbet Summeily, an early Iron Age site in southern Israel, suggest that there was more political complexity in the region at that time than had been previously thought. “These appear to be the only known examples of bullae from the tenth century [B.C.], making this discovery unique,” said Jimmy Hardin of Mississippi State University and co-director of the Hesi Regional Project. The bullae came from sealed written documents, at a site that had been thought to be a rural farmstead in a border area. “You have either political or administrative activities going on at a level well beyond those typical of a rural farmstead,” he explained. Two of the bullae have complete seal impressions, two have partial seal impressions, and two others are blank. Two of the bullae were blackened by fire, and one of them has a well-preserved hole where the string used to seal the document passed through the clay. “Generations of scholarship have suggested [that the people of Khirbet Summeily were] farming, but over the past few years, we have slowly realized that humans rarely farmed this region. It was a pasture. Shepherds tended sheep and goats under the protection of their government. Finding the bullae this past summer strongly supports our idea that Khirbet Summeily was a governmental installation,” commented Jeff Blakely of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-director of the Hesi Regional Project. The tenth century B.C. is often referred to as the time of the biblical kings David and Solomon. To read about unusual artifacts dating to the same period that were unearthed in Israel, see "Artifact: Iron Age Figurines."

Extinct Wild Horses Contributed to Today’s Domestic Breeds

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new study, led by Ludovic Orlando of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, compared the DNA obtained from two well-preserved horse fossils between 16,000 and 43,000 years old from arctic conditions in Russia, with those of the Przewalski’s horse—the only surviving population of wild horses—and five breeds of modern horses, which were first domesticated some 5,500 years ago. The team detected a set of 125 candidate genes favored by humans in modern horses that involve physical and behavioral traits, including genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. Some of those genes affect the development of muscles and bones, which would have been necessary for utilizing horses for transportation. Other genes favored by domestication control the animals’ response to fear. Negative impacts could be seen in the increasing levels of inbreeding and the accumulation of deleterious mutations that can occur in small populations. The study revealed that Przewalski’s horses have a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses, due to their recent near extinction. Finally, the genomes revealed that the ancient wild horses contributed to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. “This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process,” said co-author Mikkel Schubert of the Center for GeoGenetics. For more on horse genetics, see "Dappled Horse Paintings Decoded by DNA."

Easter Islanders Enjoyed Sweet Potatoes

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND—Monica Tromp of the University of Otago and John Dudgeon of Idaho State University have re-examined the plant microfossils found in dental calculus of the Polynesians who lived on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, in the years before European contact. Their previous research had suggested that palm may have been a staple plant food for the population, but other evidence indicates that the palm went extinct shortly after the island was colonized. For the new study, the researchers identified starch grains in the calculus removed from 30 teeth. All of the identified starch grains were consistent with modern sweet potato. None of the grains were similar to banana, taro, or yam, which are all thought to have been part of the islanders’ diet. They also tested the skins of modern sweet potatoes grown in soil similar to Easter Island’s, and found that the skins of the potatoes incorporated palm phytoliths from the soil. “So this actually bolsters the case for sweet potato as a staple and important plant food source for the Islanders from the time the island was first colonized,” said Tromp. “This research also shows that the plant foods you find evidence for in dental calculus can come from the environment that foods are grown in and not necessarily from the food itself—this finding has the potential to impact dental calculus studies worldwide,” she explained. For more on a similar study, see "Dental Calculus Offers Direct Evidence of Milk-Drinking."

Monday, December 15

Denmark's Ribe May Be Older Than Previously Thought

AARHUS, DENMARK—A new study suggests that the coastal town of Ribe, the oldest town in Scandinavia, is older than had been originally thought. “If Ribe began as a city in the early 700s, then it was long before the Vikings and thus casts new light on our understanding of this period,” Sarah Croix of Aarhus University told The Copenhagen Post. She reviewed archaeological data collected in the 1980s by archaeologist Stig Jensen, who died before compiling the results of his partial excavation of a house on St. Nicholas Street. Croix found that tools, such as millstones for grinding grain, show the wear and tear of daily use. She thinks additional houses, perhaps with fire places, could be found nearby, indicating that Ribe was a more permanent habitation site, in addition to being a harbor and commercial area. To read in-depth about the oldest evidence for Viking raiding in the Baltics, see "The First Vikings."

Racton Man’s Bronze Dagger Is 4,200 Years Old

CHICHESTER, ENGLAND—The tests results are in, and Racton Man’s bronze dagger, discovered by a metal detectorist in 1989, has been dated to 4,200 years ago, making it the earliest securely dated bronze object ever found in Britain. At the time, James Kenny, an archaeologist at Chichester District Council, went to the burial site and uncovered the skeleton and additional rivets. “What makes his dagger so stunning is the rivet-studded hilt. Its design is distinctively British, but of a significance is the fact that it dates to the transition from copper to bronze metallurgy. This dagger is bronze and so this item would have been incredibly rare at the time; its color and keen hard edge would have distinguished it from the more common copper objects in use,” explained archaeologist Stuart Needham. Analysis of Racton Man’s bones by a team from the London Institute of Archaeology shows that he stood more than six feet tall, and was more than 45 years old at the time of his death, perhaps caused by the unhealed wounds found under the right armpit and to the upper right arm. He also suffered from spinal degeneration, a chronic sinus infection, tooth decay, and an abscess. Isotope analysis of his teeth by scientists from Durham University suggest that he grew up in southern Britain. To read about a weapon from the same time period, see "Artifact: Bronze Age Dagger."

The Roman Method of Water Management

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS—The Romans carefully managed the water supply in the Mediterranean region through an extensive grain-trade network in order to provide food for an estimated 70 million people, according to a new study published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. Environmental scientist Brian Dermody of Utrecht University, and a team made up of hydrologists from the Netherlands and classicists from Stanford University, determined how much water it took to grow the staple crop, then used a hydrological model to calculate grain yields, also accounting for climate and soil type. Maps of the Roman landscape and population were employed to estimate where agricultural production and food demand were greatest, and the grain trade was simulated, based upon the Roman transportation network. “If grain yields were low in a certain region, they could import grain from a different part of the Mediterranean that experienced a surplus. That made them highly resilient to short-term climate variability,” Dermody explained. But the stable food supply may have contributed to the eventual decline of the Roman Empire. As the population and urban centers grew, the system became more dependent upon trade and more vulnerable to climate variability. “We’re confronted with a very similar scenario today. Virtual water trade has enabled rapid population growth and urbanization since the beginning of the industrial revolution. However, as we move closer to the limits of the planet’s resources, our vulnerability to poor yields arising from climate change increases,” he said. To read about Roman water management, see "Rome's Lost Aqueduct." 

Skeletal Remains May Be Famed English Racehorse

NEWMARKET, ENGLAND—Skeletal remains of a carefully buried racehorse have been uncovered at the seventeenth-century royal stables at Palace House in eastern England, the site of a new National Heritage Center for Horseracing and Sporting Art. The remains could be those of Doctor Syntax, a stallion who won 36 races between 1814 and 1823. “Where it was buried, it would make sense. Doctor Syntax was euthanized here in 1838,” curator Graham Snelling of the National Horseracing Museum told The Telegraph. Archaeologist Chris Faine of Oxford Archaeology points out that Doctor Syntax is thought to have been 28 when he died, but the skeleton’s teeth suggest that this horse was 18 to 20 years old at the time of death. “There’s no trace of any other injuries on the skeleton. The skull was heavily smashed, which means I can’t tell from it whether it was euthanized,” he said. The location of the burial in the palace yard would indicate that animal was one of the king’s favorites. To read about the excavation of a WWI-era equine hospital, see "England's Real-Life War Horses."

Friday, December 12

News from Egypt’s Karnak Temple and Ramesseum

LUXOR, EGYPT—Youssef Khalifa, head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, announced the discovery of a tomb of within the walls of a temple at the Ramesseum temple complex on Luxor’s west bank, according to a report in Ahram Online. Little is known about Karomama, called a divine royal wife, who had been buried there, along with 20 ushabti funerary figurines and other offerings. Study of the tomb could reveal the name of her royal husband. At the Karnak temple complex, French archaeologists recovered three small, bronze statuettes—two depict the god Osiris, who is sitting and wearing a wig. The third represents an unidentified, standing god decorated with hieroglyphic text that should reveal the god’s name. The team also found a pot containing blue glue. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, see "Reused Royal Tomb Opened in Luxor."

Cave Deposits in Israel Record History of Fire Use

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A study of flint tools and debris recovered from Israel’s Tabun Cave suggests that human ancestors regularly began using fire some 350,000 years ago. “Tabun Cave is unique in that it’s a site with a very long sequence. We could examine step by step how the use of fire changed in the cave,” Ron Shimelmitz of the University of Haifa told Science. While almost none of the flints from the oldest layers of the cave were burned, many of the flints from layers dating after roughly 350,000 years ago are red or black, cracked, or have small, round depressions where fragments flaked off the stone. Shimelmitz and his colleagues suggest that because wildfires are rare in caves, the flints were probably burned in fires controlled by ancestral humans. Other sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe suggest a similar timeline for the regular use of fire. To read about even earlier use of fire, see "We Didn't Start the Fire... Homo erectus Did."  

1,300-Year-Old Imperial Building Found in Japan’s First Capital

KASHIHARA, JAPAN—Thirteen holes for stone foundation posts have been discovered in the Toho Kanga area of Fujiwara-kyo, the capital of Japan between 694 and 710 A.D. “When the capital was relocated to Fujiwara-kyo, the east side may have been dedicated to residential quarters for imperial family members or for other important purposes. The discovery could be a crucial turning point in research on Fujiwara-kyo,” Masashi Kinoshita of Tokyo Gakugei University told The Asahi Shimbun. The building may have been a pavilion or a storehouse on stilts with a tiled roof. Another building, represented by five square-shaped holes with rounded edges, was also uncovered.  

The Origins of Staple Foods Studied

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Sheffield studied crops grown by early farmers in the Fertile Crescent to see if they could determine why some plants were chosen for domestication and not others. Catherine Preece and her colleagues grew wild versions of staple foods in a greenhouse, and found that the types of plants that are less bushy as adults, and have bigger seeds on fewer stems, are ideal for agriculture. “Our results surprised us because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley. It is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what we would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed,” Preece said. The next step in the research is to plant experimental fields in Turkey, the heart of the Fertile Crescent. “Cereal breeders are taking an increasing interest in modern crops’ wild relatives as a source of useful traits that may help to increase yields or increase resilience to climate change, and our work should help this process,” she added. To read about domestication of crops in the New World, see "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."