Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, July 03

Ancient Roman Skulls Show Regional Diversity

ROME, ITALY—Researchers have discovered distinct patterns in the facial features of individuals buried at three separate Roman grave sites in Italy, Live Science reports. Employing a statistical technique often used in criminal forensics called geometric morphometrics, anthropologists were able to precisely map the shape of skulls found at each site in order to determine if the people buried there showed evidence of being related or resembling one another. Of the three cemeteries chosen for the project, one is located on Isola Sacra, a tiny island southwest of Rome, which was mostly used by the city's middle class, another is at Velia on the southwestern Italian coast, where researchers expected to see evidence of the Greek origin of the region's Roman-era population, and the third is at Castel Malnome on the outskirts of Rome, which was used for lower class laborers. In individuals from Isola Sacra and Velia, the team was indeed able to discern visible similarities that confirm the common genetic background of both communities, but in Castel Malnome, a burial ground for itinerant workers and veterans from around the Roman Empire, such patterns were absent. To read more about the population of ancient Rome, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Skulls of Aztec Women and Children Identified

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Anthropologists studying remains from a recently unearthed Aztec tzompantli, or trophy skull rack, were suprised to discover skulls belonging to women and children, according to the BBC. Built between 1485 and 1502, the rack was thought to have been used by the Aztecs to display the heads of enemy warriors who were ritually sacrificed. "We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you'd think they wouldn't be going to war," says biological anthropologist Rodrigo Bolanos of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. "Something is happening that we have no record of." More than 600 skulls have been found, and the tzompantli is still being excavated, so archaeologists expect to find more. To read in-depth about the excavations, go to "Under Mexico City."

Human Remains Unearthed at Canaanite City

GEZER, ISRAEL—Archaeologists excavating at the Canaanite site of Gezer have unearthed the remains of inhabitants who appear to have perished when Egyptians destroyed the city in the thirteenth century B.C. Haaretz reports that the remains belonged to two adults and one child, and were found in a room full of ash and collapsed mud brick that was part of a large building thought to be the residence of a Canaanite prince. Gezer was one of many Canaanite cities that fell under Egyptian control during the New Kingdom period, and that eventually rebelled. According to Egyptian inscriptions, the pharaoh Merneptah reconquered the city. “The heavy destruction suggests that the Egyptian pharaoh encountered much resistance from the Gezerites," says excavation co-director Steven Ortiz of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology. To read in-depth about the Egyptian occupation of Canaan, go to "Egypt's Final Redoubt in Canaan."      

Viking Fortress Yields New Discoveries

VORDINGBORG, DENMARK—Archaeologists working at Borgring, a Viking ring fortress on the island of Zealand in Denmark, have uncovered evidence that challenges conventional wisdom about the site's lifespan and purpose, according to a report by ScienceNordic. One of five famous ringed fortifications in Denmark, Borgring was likely built around A.D. 980 by the Viking King Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, who, perhaps under pressure from the Holy Roman Empire, agreed to be baptized in the year 965, and is credited with the Christanization of the Danes. While many scholars have traditionally understood Borgring as a single-purpose structure meant to project Bluetooth's power or cement the spread of Christrianity, recently uncovered ceramic sherds at the site dating to the eleventh century suggest that the fortress continued as a settlement for hundreds of years. To read more about Harald Bluetooth, go to "Bluetooth's Fortress." 

Friday, June 30

Musket Ball Uncovered at Revolutionary War Site

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—The discovery of a lead musket ball suggests that archaeologists in Charleston, South Carolina, may have located a Revolutionary War–era trench, The Post and Courier reports. Excavations are ongoing behind the city's historic Aiken-Rhett house, where a team from the College of Charleston hopes to uncover British military earthworks used in the 1780 Siege of Charleston. The ball and trench constitute the first physical evidence of British lines from the battle, which have eluded researchers for years. To read more about archaeology in the Low Country, go to “Off the Grid: Colonial Dorchester, South Carolina.”

New Finds From Early St. Louis

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Archaeologists working in St. Louis have uncovered evidence that contradicts conventional understandings of the city's founding, according to a report by St. Louis Public Radio. A team led by archaeologist Michael Meyer of the Missouri Department of Transportation has conducted excavations ahead of construction on the Poplar Street Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River and connects the city to East St. Louis, in Illinois. They have uncovered evidence, including trade beads, brass goods, and ceramics, of both French and Native settlement in the area prior to 1764, the recorded year of St. Louis' founding by French fur trader Pierre Lacléde. While the region is famed for the Mississipan mound cities that flourished for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, it has been previously accepted that the area of St. Louis was sparsely populated when Lacléde and his followers arrived. To read more about archaeology in Missouri, go to "Digging the Scorched Earth." 

Fragments of Thutmose I Temple Discovered in Storage

  LUXOR, EGYPT—Thousands of stone blocks being kept in storage near Luxor turn out to be remains of the temple of the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose I (r. ca. 1504-1492 B.C.), according to a report from Science & Scholarship in Poland. Egyptologist Jadwiga Iwaszczuk of the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences first identified some of the fragments, which were housed in a tomb that is used as a storage facility by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. The fragments were excavated in the 1970s, and at the time were thought to belong to a temple built during the reign of Hatshepsut, who was Thutmose I’s daughter. In fact, that temple was discovered in recent years in the Ramesseum, the memorial temple of Ramesses II. Iwaszczuk identified the fragments as belonging to the temple of Thutmose I because the temple’s name appeared on some of them. Iwaszczuk and her team have now identified thousands of stone blocks that are part of the temple. Among their notable finds is an early portrayal, for the area, of a battle scene featuring chariots. For more, go to “Egypt’s Final Redoubt in Canaan.”

Neolithic Tomb Unearthed in England

SILSDEN, ENGLAND—Archaeologists digging at a future construction site in northern England have unearthed the remains of a large collective burial monument known as a barrow, reports Keighley Online. Measuring around 100 feet wide, the barrow consists of two ditches and was in use around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago, during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. At the center of the site, the team unearthed an incised funerary urn containing cremated remains, likely the barrow's primary burial. The team plans to X-ray the urn before removing its contents. Other finds included pottery, stone tools, and another cremated burial dating to the early Bronze Age. To read in-depth about this period in British prehistory, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Thursday, June 29

Neanderthal Teeth Show Evidence of Dentistry

KRAPINA, CROATIA—Evidence found in teeth at a Neanderthal site in Croatia points to rudimentary attempts at dentistry 130,000 years ago, according to a report in The Independent. David Frayer of the University of Kansas analyzed the teeth—found in the early 20th century at the site of Krapina—and observed grooves, scratches, and chips consistent with the use of a simple toothpick-like tool. Based on the pattern of markings on the individual's teeth, Frayer believes the Neanderthal may have been attempting to ease the pain of an impacted molar. To read more on the archaeology of dentistry, go to “Not So Pearly Whites.”

Grooved Skulls Discovered at Göbekli Tepe

BERLIN, GERMANY—At a 12,000-year-old temple in southeastern Turkey, researchers have discovered parts of human skulls stripped of flesh and carved with deep grooves, according to a report from Science Magazine. The temple, known as Göbekli Tepe, is well-known for its structures and carved reliefs, which predate the development of agriculture. Starting in the mid-1990s, researchers discovered tens of thousands of animal bones at the site, with around 700 fragments of human bone mixed in. More than half of the human bone fragments analyzed so far have been parts of skulls. A detailed study of three of these skull fragments found that their flesh had been removed and grooves carved from front to back. One fragment also had a hole drilled in it. “The carvings consist of many deep cuts—somebody clearly did it intentionally,” said Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute. The site’s stone artwork includes depictions of heads that are missing or lopped off, and the heads of some stone statues appear to have been intentionally removed. To read in-depth about Göbekli Tepe, go to “The World's First Temple.”

Hidden Square Formation Found Within Avebury Stones

AVEBURY, ENGLAND—Archaeologists working at Avebury, the Neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire thought to be the world's largest, have uncovered a mysterious square formation at the site's center, according to a report in The Guardian. Using radar technology, a team led by University of Leicester's Mark Gillings uncovered hidden stones marking the footprint of what they believe was a wooden building dating to around 3500 B.C. Gillings and his colleagues have concluded that the square, which measures nearly 100 feet on each side, formed a monument to what must have been a very important structure. The find may also solve a riddle that has challenged researchers since the 1930s, when the marmalade magnate Alexander Keiller conducted major exavations at Avebury. Keiller found several buried standing stones placed in a line leading to an upright obelisk, as well as postholes and grooves indicating the existence of a building. Gillings now believes that what Keiller assumed to be a medieval structure was in fact the original Neolithic building around which the entire circle developed over centuries. To read more on Neolithic henges, including Avebury, go to “The World of Stonehenge.”

Iron Age Textiles Unearthed in Israel

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—A team led by Tel Aviv University archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef has discovered colorful Iron Age textiles at the site of the Timna copper mines in Israel's Negev Desert. Haaretz reports that the textiles, which include more than 100 fragments of both wool and linen, date to the tenth century B.C. and would likely have been worn by copper workers. It had been previously believed that workers at the mines, which were associated with the Kingdom of Edom, were relatively low-status or even slaves. But the the discovery of richly decorated fabrics suggests they belonged to the upper reaches of Edomite society. “If a person had the exceptional knowledge to ‘create copper,’ he was considered well-versed in an extremely sophisticated technology,” says Ben-Yosef. “He would have been considered magical or supernatural, and his social status would have reflected this.” To read in-depth about early textiles, go to “Dressing for the Ages.”