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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, March 23

Corduroy Road Unearthed in Canada

ONTARIO, CANADA—A project to build a light rail system in the city of Waterloo has unearthed a corduroy road, made with logs sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, beneath King Street. “They would have put the trees down to help vehicles not get stuck in the mud,” Kate Hagerman, cultural heritage specialist with the Region of Waterloo, told CBC News. “That’s been a road for a long time, so there’s layers and layers of what people have done to keep it and maintain it. It would have been from the earliest historic development of the region,” she explained. For more on archaeology in Canada, go to "Canada Finds Erebus," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Bison Bones Found at Archaic Site in the Southwest

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Jesse Ballenger of the University of Arizona and archaeologist Jonathan Mabry decided to reinvestigate Cave Creek Midden in southeastern Arizona, where an excavation in 1936 uncovered evidence of corn farming dating to between 4000 and 500 B.C. “[This site] is a huge deal, because it defined about 40 years of how people conceptualized that vague moment in prehistory,” Ballenger told Western Digs. They found a deep layer of dark soil from a spring-fed wetland, or cienega, that contained cobbles, poorly preserved bison bones, and stone artifacts. They did not find, however, the butchering and cooking tools that are usually found at bison kill sites. “And any butchery marks that may be present on the bones are obscured due to the poor preservation of the bone surface,” said Meredith Wismer of the University of Iowa. “This may have been an area on the landscape that bison frequented, and it is possible that at some times in the site’s history they were hunted and used by people, but at other times bison may have gotten trapped in the cienega, died of natural causes, and were not used by people,” she explained. To read more, go to "Letter from Montana: The Buffalo Chasers."

3,000-Year-Old Chinese Oracle Bone Printed in 3-D

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Researchers led by Dominic Powlesland of Cambridge University have created a 3-D print of one of the 614 inscribed Chinese oracle bones held in the Cambridge University Library. The oracle bones date to between 1339 and 1112 B.C., and are thought to be the oldest extant documents written in the Chinese language. The inscriptions are questions about warfare, agriculture, hunting, medical problems, meteorology, and astronomy, that were written on ox shoulder blades and the flat parts of turtle shells. The answers to the questions were sought through divination. “The oracle bones are three-dimensional objects, and high-resolution 3-D imagery reveals features which not only all previous methods of reproduction (such as drawings, rubbings, and photographs) have been unable to do, but which are not even apparent from careful examination of the actual items themselves,” Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University, said in a press release. “In particular, the reverse sides of the bones, which are crucial to understanding the process of divination but have hitherto been neglected because of the difficulty of representing them adequately, can now be studied in detail thanks to this new technique,” he said. For more, go to "Artifact: Oracle Bone."

3-D Model of King Richard III’s Grave Released

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Team members from University of Leicester Archaeological Services have used photogrammetry software to create a rotatable model of the grave said to belong to King Richard III. The interactive model, available on the 3-D sharing platform Sketchfab, was made with photographs taken during the 2012 excavation of the grave. “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in special relationships that a three-dimensional model can,” site supervisor Mathew Morris said in a press release. For example, the team says that viewers can see how Richard had been buried in a grave with sloping sides and an uneven base. The grave was also too short for him, so his body leaned to one side with his head propped up. They add that this fits with accounts of the burial, which record that Richard III had been buried without pomp or a solemn funeral. “These photos were not taken with photogrammetry in mind but the software is incredibly versatile and can be applied retrospectively to create this superb model,” Morris added. For more, go to "Richard III’s Last Act."

Tuesday, March 22

Medieval Castle Uncovered in Glasgow

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND—Traces of Partick Castle have been uncovered in Glasgow by a team from GUARD Archaeology. It had been thought that any archaeological remains in the area, which had once been the site of a royal estate, an ecclesiastical center, and the country seat of the Bishops of Glasgow, had been destroyed by industrial works in the nineteenth century. On higher ground at the site, however, the archaeologists found ditches, a well, and several stone walls, in addition to pottery, metalwork, leather, glass, and animal bones ranging in age from the twelfth or thirteenth century to the seventeenth century. “This fits well with the historical references to the original Bishop’s residence being erected no earlier than the twelfth century and demolished in the early seventeenth century prior to a new tower house being constructed on the site,” excavation leader Beth Spence said in a press release. “So the archaeology we are encountering is probably the remains of both of these residences and what we will need to do once we have completed our excavation is disentangle the remains of the later tower house from the earlier castle,” she explained. For more, go to "Treasures of Rathfarnham Castle."

Metal Detected in Ink on Herculaneum Papyrus Fragments

GRENOBLE, FRANCE—An international team of scientists has detected metal, including a large amount of lead, in the ink on two papyrus scrolls recovered from Herculaneum in the eighteenth century. It had been thought that Greeks and Romans used the carbon-based ink described by Pliny the Elder until metallic inks came into use in the fourth century A.D. The team examined the documents, which were badly damaged by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, with several non-invasive synchrotron X-ray techniques at the European Synchrotron (ESRF). “This discovery is a new step in the exciting adventure of studying the papyrus of Herculaneum. The different phases of the present study on the ink will allow us to optimize the next experiments on the reading of the invisible text within papyri,” Emmanuel Brun of ESRF-INSERM said in a press release. For more, go to "The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum."

Lipid Analysis Leads to New Thoughts on Pottery

YORK, ENGLAND—Pottery is thought to have originated with hunter-gatherers in Japan some 16,000 years ago. It was also thought that as the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age some 11,500 years ago, their use of pottery expanded as more foods became available. But when an international team of researchers examined lipids extracted from 143 ceramic vessels from Torihama, a site in western Japan, they found that the pots were routinely used for cooking marine and freshwater animals over a 9,000-year period. Little evidence of plant processing or the cooking of animals such as deer was found, although there was an increase over time in the amount of freshwater fish that was cooked. “Here, we are starting to acquire some idea of why pottery was invented and became such a successful technology. Interestingly, the reason seems to be little to do with subsistence and more to do with the adoption of a cultural tradition, linked to celebratory occasions and competitive feasting, especially involving the preparation of fish and shellfish,” Oliver Craig of the University of York said in a press release. To read more about the use of pottery in archaeological research, go to "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

Use of Shea Butter Pushed Back 1,000 Years

EUGENE, OREGON—According to researcher Daphne Gallagher of the University of Oregon, shea butter has been used in West Africa since A.D. 100. Carbonized fragments of nutshells from shea trees, found at the archaeological site at Kirikongo in western Burkina Faso, were found in multiple layers of households at the site. “Our findings demonstrate the antiquity of the use of this particular resource. It demonstrates the importance of wild foods in early agricultural diets, and that its importance has continued through time,” she said in a press release. The trees continue to grow in a narrow belt of fertile, well-drained soils in the savannah stretching from West Africa to East Africa. Millet and sorghum crops have been grown around the valuable trees. “We are seeing the continual integration of the farming system. Farmers leave the trees in place. They are respected, loved, maintained, and pruned. People have rights to particular trees, which may or may not be on the land they are farming,” she said. Shea butter is rich in antioxidants, and is used as cooking oil. It is also exported for use in making soap, moisturizers, and lotions. For more on West Africa, go to "The Nok of Nigeria."

Monday, March 21

Human Remains Unearthed at the Plain of Jars in Laos

BANGKOK, THAILAND—Human remains believed to date back 2,500 years have been uncovered on the Plain of Jars, located in the central plain of Laos, by a team of archaeologists from Australia and Laos. It has been difficult to study the Plain of Jars in recent years because of unexploded ordnance dating to the 1970s. These remains were found in an ancient burial ground in a region with more than 300 stone jars, stone discs, and markers. Some of the bodies had been buried whole, some burials consisted of bundled bones, and other bones had been placed in ceramic vessels. “With our research, because we’ve been able to uncover a fair amount of human bone—we’ve got seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic jars—so a total of 11 mortuary contexts. We’re hoping we’ll be able to get some really good information about the people,” Dougald O’Reilly of Australian National University told Voice of America News. The researchers plan to conduct isotopic and chemical analysis of the bones. “This discovery marks a significant milestone since archaeological excavations began in the area in the 1930s in collaboration with a French archaeologist,” added Thonglith Luangkhoth, archaeology division director of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism. To read more about Southeast Asia, go to "Letter from Cambodia: Storied Landscape."

Ireland Inhabited 2,500 Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

SLIGO, IRELAND—A butchered brown bear bone discovered in Alice and Gwendoline Cave in County Clare in 1903 has been dated to 12,500 years ago. The knee bone, or patella, had been stored with other bones and artifacts from the cave in the National Museum of Ireland since the 1920s. “Archaeologists have been searching for the Irish Palaeolithic since the nineteenth century, and now, finally, the first piece of the jigsaw has been revealed. This find adds a new chapter to the human history of Ireland,” archaeologist Marion Dowd of the Institute of Technology Sligo said in a press release. Until this date had been confirmed for the knee bone, the oldest known site on Ireland had been at Mount Sandel in County Derry, which dates to 8000 B.C. “Yes, we expected a prehistoric date, but the Palaeolithic result took us completely by surprise,” Dowd said. And three separate bone specialists confirmed that the cut marks had been made on fresh bone. “The bone was in fresh condition meaning that people were carrying out activities in the immediate vicinity—possibly butchering a bear inside the cave or at the cave entrance,” Dowd explained. For more, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."