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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, August 20

Fourth-Century Ruins Discovered in Japan

GOSE, JAPAN—Archaeologists have discovered remains of pit houses and ditches that indicated boundaries at a site dating to the fourth century A.D. in Japan’s Nara Prefecture known as the Nakanishi ruins. They believe that the newly discovered site may have been constructed in concert with the nearby Akitsu ruins, and note that the combined site would be one of the largest settlements in Japan known from the period. “The site occupies a prominent area,” said Fumiaki Imao, a senior researcher at the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, told the Asahi Shimbun, adding that the structures discovered may have been used for rituals controlled by the early Yamato imperial court. Little is known of the workings of the court during this period, and the researchers hope their excavation will offer new insights. To read about a figurine discovered in Japan with markings thought to represent tattoos, see “Dogu Figurine.”

Pagan Warrior’s Tomb Unearthed in Poland

SANDOMIERZ, POLAND—An early eleventh-century wooden chamber tomb containing the remains of an elite warrior has been unearthed in southwestern Poland. Science in Poland reports that archaeologists discovered a number of artifacts in the grave, including ceramic vessels, a silver ring, and an iron knife, among other objects. "It should be also noted that the vessels discovered in the grave, which probably contained food and drinks, as well as other objects, clearly indicate that we are dealing with burials of people that either were still pagans, or were formally baptized, but cultivated certain pagan traditions in funeral rituals,” said Maria Curie-Skłodowska University archaeologist Marek Florek, who suspects the warrior was a foreigner. Around the tomb, Florek’s team found a number of smaller, contemporaneous graves containing wooden coffins. In one, the deceased was buried with a bronze Baltic clasp of a type that was popular in Russia between the ninth and eleventh centuries. To read about the early medieval period in the Baltic, go to "The First Vikings."

Earliest Modern Human Hand Bone Discovered

MADRID, SPAIN—Scientists have discovered a 1.84-million-year-old fossilized hand bone in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge that they believe is the oldest to resemble that of a modern human. The bone is most likely part of the little finger of the left hand of an adult belonging to an unknown species similar to Homo erectus. It measures around 1.4 inches long, comparable to the size of the same bone in the hands of modern humans, which suggests its owner would have been larger than known human relatives living at the same time—probably around five feet nine inches tall. The bone is straight, which suggests that, like modern humans, its owner was adapted to use tools and live on land rather than to climb trees. "A modernlike hand in the past would tell us when humans became fully terrestrial and when and how efficiently our ancestors used tools," Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, a paleoanthropologist at Complutense University of Madrid, told Live Science. To read about the earliest known stone tools, go to “The First Toolkit.”

Return to the USS Macon

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND—A team of specialists from the Naval History and Heritage Command and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently used ROVs to explore the wreck of the USS Macon. A lighter-than-air rigid airship that was the Navy’s last flying aircraft carrier, the Macon crashed off the coast of California eighty years ago. The U.S. Naval Institute News reports that the submersibles were able to make a photomosaic of the wreck, and took 360-degree video of a biplane that was attached to the Macon when it went down. Another task was to take measurements of corroded sections of the biplane's wing. While archaeologists and conservators have a good sense of how older, wooden shipwrecks change in underwater environments, they are still trying to understand how twentieth-century materials such as aluminum react to being submerged for long periods of time. “We haven’t quite figured out as a discipline how to best conserve the material, how those materials react with their environment and with other materials," says Naval History and Heritage Command archaeologist Alexis Catsambis. "And so this is an opportunity to learn through the sample that we collect about the rate of degradation of certain aluminum alloys and hopefully how to best help preserve them.” To read more about underwater archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Wednesday, August 19

Possible Spanish Flu Victims Found

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, PENNSYLVANIA—A team of forensic archaeologists from Mercyhurst University has removed bones from a Pennsylvania highway embankment that may be the remains of people killed in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The bones were revealed by road construction work in Schuylkill Haven, around 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The site is thought to have been the former home of a poorhouse, which was rumored to have been the site of a mass grave, according to Reuters. The bodies appeared to have been buried without coffins, as was common during the epidemic, which killed tens of millions of people around the world. From the embankment, the Mercyhurst University team collected bones belonging to four different people, which will be subjected to medical examination. “We took only the remains that were exposed on the embankment where the road crew was working, but we saw evidence of much more,” said Alexandra R. Klales of Mercyhurst University in a press release. “It is our impression that the site will require a full archaeological excavation.” To read about a recently discovered mass grave in Paris, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Drones Help Find Medieval Irish Sites

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Thomas Finan, an archaeologist and history professor at Saint Louis University, has conducted excavations in the northern part of Ireland’s County Roscommon over the last two decades at sites including an ecclesiastical complex, a moated stronghold, and a number of ringforts. In addition to other technologies, he is now using aerial surveys taken by drone aircraft to help locate new dig sites with the potential to illuminate medieval social dynamics in the area. "We have collected an unprecedented amount of digital data," Finan said in a press release. "The 3D landscape data allows us to see minute changes in the topography that can be defined as structures and human occupation. The digital data collected with the geophysics is then wrapped around that 3D data to give us an amazing understanding of what is there without sinking a spade." To read about new ideas on when the Vikings came to Ireland, go to “The Vikings in Ireland.”

A New Interpretation of Black Dragon Canyon's Rock Art

BLACK DRAGON CANYON, UTAH—Petroglyphs discovered in 1928 in Utah’s Black Dragon Canyon have been examined using the latest technology, including X-ray fluorescence and a computer program called DStretch that highlights the original pigments in a painting, even when they are invisible to the naked eye. Archaeologist Paul Bahn, who co-directed the project, tells LiveScience that these new techniques have allowed him and his colleague Jean-Loïc Le Quellec to put forth a new interpretation of the paintings, created by the Fremont culture, that sees them as not just one image of a kind of flying monster (or a pterodactyl), but as a set of five images including one of a human figure with spindly legs and outstretched arms. The DStretch results showed "very clearly that these are a set of separate figures," Bahn says. To read more about some of the Fremont culture’s unique artistic style, go to “Investigating a Decades-Old Disappearance.”

Sections of Eighteenth-century British Fort Uncovered

LAKE GEORGE, NEW YORK—An ongoing project at the Lake George Battlefield Park site has uncovered sections of a stone wall that project lead archaeologist David Starbuck believes belong to a British fort dated to 1759, reports the Bradenton Herald. After the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by the British in that year, however, Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of British forces in North America, halted construction of the large fort, and it was never completed. For Starbuck, uncovering stone walls six feet high and up to five feet thick was entirely unexpected. In addition to the sections of wall, the team has uncovered musket balls, gun flints, and also pottery dating to the period. To read about a Revolutionary War fort just across Lake Champlain, go to “Off the Grid.”

Tuesday, August 18

Early Scandinavian Farmers Were Sophisticated

ALMHOV, SWEDEN—Researchers studying cow teeth from southern Sweden dating to around 4000 B.C. have found evidence that early farmers there knew more about livestock husbandry than previously thought. By analyzing the oxygen isotopes in the teeth, the team found that cows were born over the course of a year, not just one season, indicating that the Neolithic farmers could control when calves were born. “It’s very interesting that the farmers of the period were able to manipulate the calving seasons, so all the calves did not come in the spring,” Durham University's Kurt Gron told ScienceNordic. “This is very hard to do, and would not have taken place if the farmers had not intended to do it.” By controlling the calving season, the farmers had access to milk year round, which suggests to some archaeologists that the farmers were so sophisticated that they were probably immigrants from central Europe where such livestock practices were already established. To read about the technology used by people around this time in Europe, go to "Neolithic Toolkit."

Confederate Warship Raised from Savannah River

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA—The armored siding of the CSS Georgia, a Confederate warship that was intentionally sunk in 1864, is being raised in five-ton pieces from the bed of the Savannah River. The ship’s remains are being removed in advance of a project to deepen the river’s channel. Built in 1862, the ship was anchored in the river to protect Savannah against the Union navy. Just a few years later, its crew chose to sink the boat rather than surrender it to the approaching enemy. Archaeologists are now studying sections of the frame to learn how the Confederacy built ships without a well-developed industrial infrastructure. "A lot of these ironclads are built by house carpenters, they're not built by shipwrights," Jeff Seymour, a historian and curator for the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia, told the Associated Press. "So what are the construction techniques? They vary from ship to ship." To read more about nautical archaeology, go to “History’s 10 Greatest Wrecks.”

Iron Age Burials Discovered

DORSET, ENGLAND—Workers carrying out routine drainage and sewage maintenance at an eighteenth-century cottage in Dorset have unearthed three skeletons dating to the early Iron Age, or between 800 and 600 B.C. "There are no previous burials from that time in Dorset so it is a very significant find from a period with little evidence for the disposal of the dead,” National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth told Culture24. The remains belonged to young adults between 18 and 25 years old and apart from some bone fragments removed for study, they have remained in situ. Papworth suspects that the settlement where the three lived could be buried nearby. To read about another burial from this era discovered in England, go to "Iron Age Warrior Burial."   

Neolithic Mass Grave Holds Evidence of Vicious Attack

BASEL, SWITZERLAND—Evidence from a mass grave in Germany dating to roughly 7,000 years ago suggests that conflicts in Neolithic Europe, when humans first began to farm, were far more brutal than had been previously thought, according to a press release from the University of Basel. The skeletons from the Schöneck-Kilianstädten gravesite, which was discovered in 2006, included adults and children, but were mostly male. They bore evidence of damage from arrows as well as major damage to the head, face, and teeth. In addition, the attackers appear to have broken the victims’ legs in a systematic manner, possibly as a form of torture or bodily mutilation. The researchers believe such massacres were common during the Central European Neolithic period. "We don't know what was going on for sure at this time, but we think several farming communities were targeting each other," Christian Meyer of the University of Mainz in Germany told BBC News. To read about a mass grave in England that may hold Viking victims of a massacre, go to “Vengeance on the Vikings.”