Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 01

Where Did “Lucy” Spend Her Time?

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—A report in The Washington Post suggests that the early human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, which had hips, feet, and legs suitable for walking, and ape-like long arms with curved fingers, probably spent a significant amount of time in trees. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and his colleagues compared X-ray microtomography scans of Lucy, the 3.18-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil specimen, with scans of the arm and leg bones of modern chimpanzees and modern humans. The results indicate that Lucy’s arms were not as strong as a chimp’s, but were significantly stronger than those of a modern human. “If she evolved from a more arboreal ancestor, she may just not have had the time yet to evolve a shorter upper limb,” Ruff said. “We have to look at traits that changed during her life depending on how she used that part of her skeleton—that’s real evidence of what someone was actually doing.” He thinks that Australopithecus afarensis may have climbed trees at night to find a safe place to sleep. But critics note that Lucy lacked a climber’s opposable big toe, and suggest that there could be other explanations for her arm strength. For more on members of the Australopithecus genus, go to “The Human Mosaic.”

Temple Dedicated to Wind God Found in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—A circular platform unearthed at a construction site in Mexico City was part of a temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind, according to a report in The Guardian. The white stucco temple, built by the Mexica-Tlatelolca people some 650 years ago, was round on three sides, had a rectangular platform on the fourth, and was located within a large ceremonial site in the ancient city of Tlatelolco. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History also uncovered bird bones, obsidian, maguey cactus spines, ceramic figurines of monkeys and duck bills, and the remains of an infant at the temple site, which will be preserved within the new construction. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Lumps of Bitumen Identified in Sutton Hoo Boat Burial

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a team of scientists from the British Museum and the University of Aberdeen analyzed lumps of organic material found in the boat burial at Sutton Hoo. Excavated in 1939 in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the East of England, the lavish, seventh-century boat burial contained a ceremonial helmet, a shield and sword, and gold and gemstone dress fittings. It had been thought that the lumps were pine tar, which is made from trees and can be used for boat maintenance. The study revealed, however, that the lumps are bitumen, a petroleum product. Chemical fossils within the samples “show this material comes from the Dead Sea family of bitumens, perhaps sourced in Syria,” explained Stephen Bowden of the University of Aberdeen. The bitumen pieces were probably obtained through the extensive Anglo-Saxon trade network, and may have been part of another object that has not survived. For more on archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon period, go to “The Kings of Kent.”

Wednesday, November 30

Mummified Legs May Have Been Queen Nefertari’s

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Seeker reports that a pair of mummified legs housed at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, may have belonged to Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramses II, who is thought to have ruled Egypt between 1290 and 1224 B.C. Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens was plundered and her mummy damaged in antiquity. In 1904, Italian archaeologist and diplomat Ernesto Schiaparelli found fragments of her pink granite sarcophagus, a well-made pair of sandals, and the two fragmented, mummified legs. The new study determined the legs belonged to a woman who stood about five feet, five inches tall, may have had arteriosclerosis, and died between 40 and 60 years of age. Radiocarbon testing of the legs, however, yielded a date some 200 years earlier than when Nefertari is thought to have lived. “A discrepancy between radiocarbon dating and Egyptian chronology models has long been debated,” said Egyptologist Michael Habicht of the University of Zurich. “Indeed, some question[s] on the chronological model of the New Kingdom may now arise.” The researchers think it is likely that the remains belong to Nefertari. There is some possiblility that mudslides and heavy rains could have washed someone else’s legs into her tomb, they note, though this is unlikely as it is located on high ground. For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Early Burial Rituals Studied in Brazil

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—According to a report in Live Science, a team led by André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is investigating some of the earliest burial rituals in the New World at the site of Lapa do Santo in east-central Brazil. Some 10,600 years ago, the dead were buried intact within the large limestone cave. Then, about 1,000 years later, Strauss and his colleagues say, fresh corpses were dismembered and defleshed before burial. Even teeth were removed from skulls. Marks on some of the bones indicate that they were burned or even cannibalized before being placed inside a skull and buried without gravestones or grave goods. Some 8,000 years ago, burial practices changed again, and bones were not manipulated—the scientists found pits filled with the disarticulated bones of single individuals. Strauss suggests the changing ritual behaviors indicate that the groups living in the region of Lapa do Santo were more diverse and sophisticated than had been believed. For more, go to “Off the Grid: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”

Priest Hole Mapped in English Tudor Country House

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reports that a research team led by Chris King, Lukasz Bonenbergand, and Sean Ince of the University of Nottingham has used new scanning technology to produce a 3-D map of a priest hole hidden at Coughton Court, a Tudor country house in Warwickshire. A priest hole was a concealed, secret chamber where a Catholic priest could hide during the religious persecution that followed the English Reformation in the seventeenth century. The priest hole at Coughton Court was first found in a turret of the main gatehouse in the 1850s. It contained a rope ladder, bedding, and a portable altar. “At Coughton, the priest hole is hidden away out of sight, and the 3-D model will really help visitors to understand where it fits inside the building,” King said. For more, go to “Letter from England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Fourteenth-Century Plague Pit Unearthed in England

LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND—Estimates suggest that up to half of England’s population died of the Black Death between 1346 and 1353. The Independent reports that a team of archaeologists has unearthed a mass grave at the monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey, in the East of England. The remains of 48 people, including more than 20 children, were found in the grave. DNA testing of tooth pulp obtained from the skeletons has revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague. Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield explained that the team did not expect to find a mass burial in rural Lincolnshire. The discovery suggests that the small community was overwhelmed by the number of deaths caused by the epidemic. The team also uncovered a Tau Cross pendant in the hospital building. Willmott said that some believed that the Tau Cross could cure skin diseases. Symptoms of the Black Death include egg-shaped lumps in the groin, neck, and armpits that can ooze pus and blood, as well as black spots of gangrenous flesh. For more, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Southwestern Clay Figurines Studied

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Western Digs reports that Mark Chenault of Westland Resources found a cache of clay figurines at a pre-contact village site in the Sonoran Desert. Only a few similar objects have been found in the Southwest. It had been proposed that the “long, bulbous objects” were used in ancestor veneration or even as children’s toys, but the new research suggests that they were used as tokens of fertility employing both male and female symbolism. The phallus-shaped figures measure between 2.75 and four inches long, and sometimes have human features, such as eyes, breasts, or braided hair. “I believe that they could have been used for both human fertility and agricultural fertility,” Chenault said. “However, I think that the sexual characteristics argue more strongly for their use in human puberty or fertility rites.” He explained that the concept of sexual duality has been found in cultures from the same time period in Mesoamerica, and those ideas may have been shared by people living over a wide area. To read more about archaeology in the Sonoran Desert, go to “Early Irrigators - Tucson, Arizona.”

Tuesday, November 29

New Thoughts on the Origins of Glass

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—Some scholars have suggested that glassmaking originated in Mesopotamia some 3,600 years ago, but conservation scientist Katherine Eremin of Harvard Art Museums and archaeologist Andrew Shortland of Cranfield University think that glassmaking may have been invented in Egypt. Science News reports that glass beads and fragments of vessels and pendants recovered almost 100 years ago at the site of Nuzi, located in what is now Iraq, were thought to be the oldest glass artifacts. The new analysis suggests that some of those objects are only a few hundred years old, and the oldest items date to just 3,400 years ago. The researchers say that Egyptian glass is of roughly the same age, and was crafted in multiple colors, such as red, yellow, green, and opaque and translucent blue, in complicated patterns. Eremin says that by comparison, the Mesopotamian glass was not made as skillfully, and the objects may have been copies of Egyptian styles. Further study of glass from Egypt and the Near East is needed, she said. To read in-depth about archaeology in Mesopotamia, go to “The World in Between.”

Huge Bronze Age Torque Found in England

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—According to a report in the Peterborough Telegraph, a torque made from more than one and one-half pounds of twisted and burnished gold was found by a metal detectorist, some 50 miles from the site of Must Farm, an extremely well-preserved Bronze Age village in the East of England. Although torques were usually worn around a person’s neck, this one, estimated to be more than 3,000 years old, is so large that it may have been worn around the waist by a pregnant woman or over thick winter clothing, as a sash, or even by a sacrificial animal. The torque was reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum. To read about the discovery of another gold torque, go to “Hidden in a Coin Hoard.”

Seventh-Century Earthworks Discovered in Japan

CHIKUSHINO, JAPAN—An excavation on a hilltop on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu has found evidence of a seventh-century fortification, complete with castles and large-scale earthworks, according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. The site is thought to have been part of a network of fortifications to protect the Dazaifu, or regional government, which was headquartered about four miles away. In A.D. 663, Japan sent an army to the Korean Peninsula to assist Korean Baekje forces fighting against another one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which was allied with China’s Tang Dynasty. The Japanese were defeated in the battle, however, and the Dazaifu constructed defenses to prepare for a possible invasion. “Given the construction method and the estimated production years of the earthenware, there is a high possibility that the mound was part of a structure to defend Dazaifu,” said an official with the Chikushino city board of education. Some scholars think the earthworks may have been part of a continuous wall, similar to the kind of fortifications seen in China. For more on archaeology in Japan, go to “Khubilai Khan Fleet.”