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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, November 05

Medieval Chess Pieces Unearthed in England

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Two medieval chess pieces carved from antler have been unearthed at a construction site in England’s East Midlands. The larger of the two twelfth-century game pieces was probably a bishop. The other artifact is thought to be the top part of a king. They were found among pieces of bone and antler, and may have been discarded during the manufacturing process. “They provide us with clear evidence of antler and bone working in the town, making something which is effectively a leisure product. It took quite a lot of effort to hand carve and finish these kind of things, so it’s going to be something that you’re paying the craftsman for,” archaeologist Jim Brown of the Museum of London Archaeology told BBC News. To read about another discovery from the same era in Northampton, see "Scraps of Medieval Linen Unearthed."

Did Climate Change Contribute to the Fall of the Assyrian Empire?

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—Adam Schneider of the University of California-San Diego and Selim Adali of the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Turkey argue in the journal Climatic Change that drought and population expansion contributed to the decline of the Assyrian Empire. Located in northern Iraq, the Assyrian Empire reached its height in the early seventh century B.C., but then experienced a quick decline, including civil wars, political unrest, and the destruction of Nineveh, the capital, by the end of the century. Paleoclimate data show that the region became more arid during the latter half of the seventh century B.C., at the same time that peoples conquered by the Assyrians were resettled there. “What we are proposing is that these demographic and climatic factors played an indirect but significant role in the demise of the Assyrian Empire,” Schneider told Phys.org.

Documents Tell of Childhood in Roman Egypt

OSLO, NORWAY—Ville Vuolanto of the University of Oslo and April Pudsey of the University of Newcastle are systematically examining papyri from the site of Oxyrhynchus, images and texts from pottery, and toys and other objects to learn more about the experience of childhood in Roman Egypt. The lives of young children generally are not reflected in the documents, which were discovered 100 years ago at the site of the ancient town. They have learned, however, that the teen sons of prosperous free-born citizens enrolled in a gymnasium, where they were taught the lessons of good citizenship. Some 20 apprenticeship contracts reflect the options of the sons of the less well-to-do. “We have found only one contract where the apprentice was a girl. But her situation was a little unusual—she was not only an orphan but also had her deceased father’s debts to pay,” Vuolanto told Science Daily. Enslaved children could also become apprentices, and their contracts were of the same type as those written for free-born boys. Other documents record the sale of the children of slaves. “We are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt,” Vuolanto said. To read about an unusual Roman depiction of a child, see "Statuette of a Charioteer."

17th-Century Markings Were Intended to Protect King James I

KENT, ENGLAND—Scorch marks and gouges have been found on the oak beams of a bedroom built at Knole House for King James I shortly after the failed attempt on his life in the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. The house was owned by Thomas Sackville, treasurer to James I, who probably would have died with the king if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded. Tree ring dating shows that the beams were cut from an oak felled in early 1606. The marks, made while the wood was still green, are thought to have been made in the room’s joists and around the fireplace by craftsmen to protect the king from witchcraft. “The workmen may never have consulted the owner about this, they just knew what had to be done,” James Wright of the Museum of London Archaeology told The Guardian. The royal renovations were completed by 1608, but Sackville died and King James never visited Knole House. To read about a royal Anglo-Saxon feasting hall discovered in the same part of England, see "The Kings of Kent."

Tuesday, November 04

New Mosaics Revealed at Zeugma

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY—Excavations this summer at the ancient Greco-Roman center of Zeugma in southern Turkey have revealed three new mosaics. They were discovered in an elaborate building known as the Muzalar House, which will now undergo stabilization. “From now on, we will work on restoration and conservation," archaeologist Kutalmış Görkay told the Hürriyet Daily News. "We plan to establish a temporary roof for long-term protection…. Excavations will be finished in the Muzalar House next year."  Görkay estimates that 25 of the city's houses are now underwater due to dam construction, but that there could be as many as 3,000 more at the site. To read more about the dramatic mosaics discovered in the city, see "Zeugma After the Flood."

Ancient Village Discovered in Colombia

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA—Archaeologists surveying in advance of energy-related construction southwest of Bogota have uncovered a 12-acre settlement dating as far back as 900 B.C., according to Colombia Reports. The village appears to have endured until 1500 A.D., when it was last occupied by the Muisca people, who were wiped out when the Spaniards arrived. Until now, researchers had assumed that pre-Columbian people in the area were mainly nomadic. But the newly discovered village suggests that settlements lasted for hundreds of years in the region, challenging scholars' assumptions about prehistoric societies in what is now Colombia. 

Siberia's Massive Moose Geoglyph Dated

CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA—Three years ago, researchers discovered a 900-foot-long stone structure in the shape of a moose high in the Ural Mountains. Now further archaeological work at the massive geoglyph has uncovered clues to its construction and allowed researchers to date it to between 4000 and 3000 B.C. Some 155 stone tools have been found near the geoglyph, most of which were used for digging or breaking stones. "Judging by the different sizes of the tools—from 17cm-long and weighing about three kilograms to some being just two centimeters—we can assume they were used by both adults and children," Chelyabinsk History and Archaeology Institute archaeologist Stanislav Grigoryev told the Siberian Times. "We can also assume it means that everyone participated in creating the moose." It appears the Neolithic people who created the geoglyph dug 30-foot-wide trenches and then filled them in with stones. Grigoryev says the style of the moose seems to resemble petroglyphs found in Finland. To read about medieval ruins found at the center of a Siberian Lake, see "Fortress of Solitude."

Monday, November 03

Tree Carvings Help Date World War II Site in Poland

POZNAŃ, POLAND—Carvings in beech trees are helping archaeologists date World War II-era fortifications that were built between 1934 and 1944 in a forest in western Poland. Known as the Miedzyrzecz Fortification Region, the trenches were intended to defend the eastern border of the Third Reich. Dawid Kobialka and colleagues Maksymilian Frąckowiak and Kornelia Kajda of the Institute of Prehistory at Adam Mickiewicz University think that some of the inscriptions from 1944 may have been carved by Polish captives forced to work on the fortifications by the Germans. “On several trees we have recorded a clear concentration of Polish names—including Klimowicz, Wolski, Kubiak—next to which specific August dates are inscribed with the year 1944. Two words are also visible: “Łódź” (name of a city) and “Polacy” (Poles),” Kobialka told Science & Scholarship in Poland. But a metal detector survey failed to turn up anything at the site. “This report was not a surprise. If that trench was dug in 1944, it can be assumed that it never served a defensive function—the Germans retreated before the Russians. Therefore, in the trench there were no soldiers or fighting, there were no shells or any other items usually found in places of armed conflict,” he added. To read more about the study of this period, see "The Archaeology of World War II."

“Ancient” Skull Recovered From a Cave in England

LANCASHIRE, ENGLAND—Cavers exploring Dunald Mill Hole in northwestern England discovered what is being described as an ancient human skull. At the request of Lancashire Police, a team from the Cave Rescue Organization (CRO) retrieved the skull. “CRO was asked to retrieve it as part of the subsequent police investigation and a small team completed the task later in the day,” a spokesperson told The Westmorland Gazette.

Remains May Have Been Rural Roman Farmers

WORCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND—Domestic pottery and the remains of two individuals who lived during the Roman period have been unearthed at a school in England’s West Midlands. One of the burials was of a woman over the age of 50. Hobnails, which are associated with rural Roman agricultural burials, were found with her bones. The other set of remains belonged to an adult male between the ages of 25 and 30 at the time of death. The bones show signs of degenerative joints and osteoarthritis. His head had been removed and placed alongside his legs. “This discovery seems to support evidence that during Roman times there were small farmsteads in Worcestershire, owned or run by a family,” archaeologist Tom Vaughan told The Worcester News. The boot-wearing woman may have worked on the farmstead—preparing food, manufacturing cloth, or as a general laborer. To read about another rural site in England with a strong Roman prescence, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Letter From England: The Scientist's Garden."