Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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.”

Wednesday, October 19

Engraved Stone May Have Been a Neolithic Map

BORNHOLM, DENMARK—The Copenhagen Post reports that an engraved stone fragment discovered at the Neolithic site of Vasagård on the island of Bornhom could be a map. Archaeologist Flemming Kaul of the National Museum of Denmark said that other stones inscribed with lines and rectangles have been found at the site, and it had been thought that the markings depicted the sun and its rays. This partial stone is now thought to show the details of an area of the island as it appeared between 2700 and 2900 B.C. Some of the markings may represent plants with leaves. “These are not accidental scratches,” he said. “We see the stones as types of maps showing different kinds of fields.” To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Skara Brae Residents May Have Snacked on Rodents

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—The Los Angeles Times reports that rodents may have been a source of food at Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement on the Orkney Islands. Biologist Jeremy Herman of the National Museums of Scotland and his team evaluated some 60,000 small mammal bones collected from four trenches at the site in the 1970s. The scientists found that the number of wood mouse bones was equal in all four trenches, but one of the trenches had a greater number of bones from the Orkney vole than the others. And, since voles, which are slightly bigger than mice, are thought to usually stay away from people, the animals may have been brought to the area. Some of the bones also bear burn marks. “The way they are burnt it’s pretty clear that they were pretty much whole when they were stuck on the embers of a fire,” Herman said. “I haven’t tried it myself, but I imagine they got pretty crisp on the outside.” He thinks the small rodents may have served as a snack, a food for lean times, or something that children caught and roasted. To read in-depth about excavations on Orkney, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Drones Used to Map the Plain of Jars in Laos

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Canberra Times reports that CAVE2 technology, based at Monash University, has been used to map three excavation sites on the Plain of Jars, an archaeological site in a remote area of Laos with carved stone jars that stand nearly ten feet tall. Drones are being used to collect the footage for the project. The team of researchers will then create a 3-D replica of the excavations and the entire Plain of Jars landscape. “It hasn’t really been researched on this scale since the 1930s and what our project hopes to show is exactly what the jars were for, when they were produced, and who made them,” said Dougald O’Reilly of Australian National University. Information collected with ground-penetrating radar was fed into the CAVE2 system to create the underground view of the excavation area. O’Reilly also plans to evaluate the site with lidar technology, which can detect archaeological remains beneath heavy foliage, and add that information to the virtual 3-D reconstruction. For more, go to “Drones Enter the Archaeologist's Toolkit.”

German WWI Submarine Found Off the Coast of Scotland

STRANRAER, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a German U–boat dating to the First World War was discovered off the coast of Scotland by a team laying subsea power cables. The vessel is thought to be UB-85, one of two UBIII-Class submarines known to have been lost in the Irish Sea. After being picked up by HM Drifter Coreopsis, the captain and crew of UB-85 claimed to have done battle with a sea monster that damaged the vessel so badly that it could no longer submerge. But nautical archaeologist Innes McCartney says that when the British ship approached the submarine on the surface at night, the crew of the German vessel may have tried to submerge quickly, started taking on water, and had to resurface and surrender. Identifying the newly discovered wreck with confidence may be impossible, however, as the UBIII-Class submarines were all very similar. “Unless a diver can find a shipyard stamp, we cannot say definitively, but yes, we’re certainly closer to solving the so-called mystery of UB-85 and the reason behind its sinking—whether common mechanical failure or something that is less easily explained,” McCartney said. To read about attempts to identify another recently discovered shipwreck, go to “Is it Esmeralda?

Tuesday, October 18

Unusual Graves Discovered in Poland

SASINY, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that ten monumental tombs discovered in northeastern Poland resemble Neolithic burials, even though they date to the eleventh to thirteenth centuries and are thought to contain the remains of Christians. “All members of the local community were buried in the study graveyard—both poorer and richer, including the elite,” said archaeologist Michal Dzik of the University of Rzeszów. “Funeral rites were common to all. Each of the deceased was placed in a large burial structure, the edges of which [were] marked by big boulders.” After the body had been placed inside, the rectangular-shaped graves were filled with layers of stones. The burials, however, were not covered with mounds of dirt, as had been the case before the arrival of Christian customs. Dzik also found glass beads, silver temple rings, crescent moon and cross pendants, evidence of vessels placed near the deceased, and bonfires that had been lit in the tombs. He thinks there may have been other, similar cemeteries in the area that retained elements of pre-Christian burials, but their distinctive boulders were reused in later periods as building materials. To read about the burial of a medieval knight in England, go to “Surely You Joust?

Mastodon Found in Michigan May Have Been Butchered

MAYVILLE, MICHIGAN—The Detroit News reports that a team from the University of Michigan, assisted by teachers from Tuscola County, has recovered about 60 to 70 percent of the remains of a 30-year-old male mastodon thought to have been processed by human hunters or scavengers between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago. The long limb bones, both shoulder blades, the pelvis, the skull, many vertebrae, and most of the ribs were found. Some sections of the carcass had been separated from other sections. The tusks, lower jaw, and most of the foot bones were missing from the site. Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, estimates the likelihood that humans were involved in processing the carcass at 80 percent. He thinks that humans may have stored the sections of mastodon meat in cold, low-oxygen pond sediments to help preserve them. The team will now radiocarbon date the remains and examine them for signs of butchery. The animal’s wisdom teeth will also be analyzed to try to determine in which season it died. To read about another discovery in Michigan, go to “Leftover Mammoth.”

Medieval Artifacts Unearthed in Southwest England

DEVON, ENGLAND—The Herald Express reports that fifteenth-century artifacts have been found in the town of Newton Abbot by a team from Cotswold Archaeology. The excavation site along Wolborough Street includes the rear areas of long, narrow plots of land that would have been rented from the local lord during the medieval period. The red mud of the region preserved a child’s shoe, an iron spur, and three wooden barrel bases. The excavators have also uncovered a granite millstone in the bottom of one of two wells at the site. The front areas of these plots of land were disturbed by the construction of two large townhouses in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The archaeologists think that they may find evidence of a sixth- or seventh-century settlement under the medieval remains. To read about another find in the area, go to “Seaton Down Hoard.”

Genetic Study of Bison Offers Clue to Cave Painting Conundrum

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—The Christian Science Monitor reports that the ancestor of the modern European bison, the wisent, may have descended from a cross some 120,000 years ago between the extinct ancestor of modern cattle and the Ice Age steppe bison. Alan Cooper of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide led a team that was examining bison fossils to study climate change. Surprisingly, DNA extracted from the bones suggested the animal was actually a hybrid between an aurochs and a steppe bison. “We contacted French cave art researchers who happily told us that you can see two quite different forms of bison in the cave art,” Cooper said. “They’d been put down to regional artistic differences or cultural differences.” Cooper and his team radiocarbon dated the bones and found that the unknown hybrid bison and the steppe bison each had an ecological niche, which was recorded in cave art. The hybrid bison seems to have thrived in colder conditions, while the steppe bison dominated during warmer periods. For more, go to “Bison Bone Mystery.”