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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, March 04

Dates Obtained for Earliest-Known Homo Fossil

STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA—The earliest-known fossil of a human ancestor, discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia, has been dated to between 2.8 and 2.75 million years ago by an international team of scientists. Known as LD 350-1, the team dated the layers of volcanic ash above and below the Ledi-Geraru fossil mandible. “We are confident in the age of LD350-1. We used multiple dating methods including radiometric analysis of volcanic ash layers, and all show that the hominin fossil is 2.8 to 2.75 million years old,” Erin N. DiMaggio of Penn State University said in a press release posted on EurekaAlert. Other fossils in the area include prehistoric antelope, elephants, a type of hippopotamus, crocodiles, and fish. These types of animals suggest that the habitat at the time was made up of mixed grasslands and shrub lands with trees lining rivers or wetlands. “We can see the 2.8 million-year-old aridity signal in the Ledi-Geraru faunal community. But it’s still too soon to say that this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo. We need a larger sample of hominin fossils and that’s why we continue to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search,” added Kaye E. Reed of Arizona State University. To read more about human origins, see "Our Tangled Ancestry."

13th-Century Fortress May Have Belonged to Genghis Khan

MORIGUCHI, JAPAN—Japanese and Mongolian archaeologists have investigated a structure they say was commissioned for Genghis Khan by a close aide in 1212. The site, located in southwestern Mongolia, was first photographed from the air and surveyed in 2001 because its geographical features were similar to the landscape depicted in a medieval travel book. Surrounded by an earthen wall, the castle may have served as a military base when Genghis Khan was invading central Asia. Thirteenth-century Chinese ceramics were also recovered at the site. “We hope the discovery will be useful in ascertaining the history of the Mongolian Plateau between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” team leader Koichi Matsuda of Osaka International University told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about the search for great khan's tomb, see "Genghis Khan: Founder of the Mongol Empire."

Was Rome Really a “City of Marble?”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—Architectural historian Diane Favro of the University of California, Los Angeles, has employed advanced modeling software to reconstruct the city of Rome in its entirety over the period of the rule of Augustus Caesar, from 44 B.C. to A.D. 14. According to legend, Augustus boasted, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Favro’s model uses a technique called procedural modeling that automatically regenerates as new information is added. The buildings are represented by massing models that are color-coded: marble buildings are pink, brick buildings are gray, and buildings under construction are yellow. She found that only a small proportion of the buildings in Augustan Rome were converted from brick to marble, and that they would have been difficult to see from ground level. “Given the literary descriptions and artwork, I thought these glittering marble temples on high would be very visible, but they were not,” she explained. She thinks that the movement of Carrara marble blocks from the northwest coast of Italy through the city probably caused congestion on the streets and created the illusion of a city of marble. “Because they saw construction taking place constantly, I believe people really did think that Rome had been transformed into marble. But in reality, the city did not greatly transform.” To read about how the construction of Rome's port fueled the empire's rise, see "Rome's Imperial Port."

Tuesday, March 03

Mercury in Ancient Fish Bones Linked to Rising Seas

KING SALMON, ALASKA—Alaska Dispatch News reports that the bones of cod recovered from a coastal archaeological site on Mink Island in Katmai National Park and Preserve contain high levels of toxic mercury. It is thought that the flesh of the fish, eaten by the people who lived at the site between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, would have had significantly higher levels of the contaminant. The bones date to the early and mid-Holocene, when the climate was warming and rising seas were inundating the Bering Land Bridge and naturally occurring mercury in the dry or frozen land was dispersed into marine waters. The highest readings from the bones match or exceed present-day mercury levels in fish, which are elevated by mercury contamination from industrial activities around the world, according to Lawrence Duffy of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Mercury levels fell dramatically thousands of years later, once sea levels were stable. “The population, I’m comfortable in saying, would be more at risk than a population 1,000 years ago or 500 years ago when the levels had dropped,” Duffy said. For more on studies of ancient mercury contamination, see "Secrets of Life in the Soil."

18th-Dynasty Tomb Discovered in Luxor

CAIRO, EGYPT—A tomb dating to the 18th Dynasty has been discovered by a team from the American Research Center in the Gorna necropolis on Luxor’s west bank. The t-shaped tomb has two large halls and an unfinished small niche at one end. A side room has a shaft that “could lead to the burial chamber,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh el-Damaty told Ahram Online. The walls of the tomb, which was looted and damaged in antiquity, are decorated with paintings of hunting scenes and images of the tomb’s owner, a guard of Amun’s gate, and his wife in front of an offering table. Some of the scenes and hieroglyphic texts, including the name of the god Amun, had been erased. Soltan Eid, director of Upper Egypt Antiquities, explained that this may have been done during the reign of the monotheistic king Akhenaten.  For more on this period in Egyptian history, see "Hieroglyphs Shed Light on Akhenaten's Rule."

Shallow 17th-Century Grave Unearthed in Oxford

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The remains of a young woman were unearthed from a shallow grave in an area designated for gardens and buildings on historic maps. A Charles I silver shilling found near her shoulder is thought to have been placed on her eyes before she was put in a burial shroud held in place with pins. The coin was struck at the Tower Mint in 1640 or 1641 and suggests that the woman may have come from a prosperous family, but finding the remains of a wealthy person of the period buried outside a cemetery is highly unusual. “At present we have one young adult female burial that potentially dates from the English Civil War,” Carl Champness of Oxford Archaeology South told Culture 24. Archaeologists speculate that she may have died during the siege of Oxford, when a more formal burial may have been difficult. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the bones could provide more information. To read in-depth about a site that tells the story of the evolution of England's culture over the course of thousands of years, see "The Scientist's Garden."

Monday, March 02

Alaska Landslide Reveals Stone Hammer

SITKA, ALASKA—Landslides in the Starrigavan Valley last year brought a prehistoric stone tool that may have been used to drive wedges and split wood to the surface. Forest Service hydrologists Marty Becker and KK Prussian were assessing the damage in the slide area when Becker found the piece of rock. “And I noticed it felt real comfortable in my hand. Like it just fit perfectly. I brushed it off, took a closer look, and realized what it was,” he told KTOO News. The handmaul is missing one arm of its usual “T” shape. “My guess is that it would have been used for harvesting cedar. One of the many uses of cedar was as planks. And there was just a tremendous amount of cedar on that slope that came down,” explained Forest Service archaeologist Jay Kinsman. There are archaeological sites in the area that range in age from 300 to 1,200 years old, but archaeologists may never know when and where this particular tool was made. To read in-depth about prehistoric carpentry, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Mass Graves Discovered in Paris

PARIS, FRANCE—The skeletal remains of more than 200 people who may have been victims of the plagues that struck Paris in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries have been discovered at a construction site in central Paris. The site had been a cemetery hospital from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries, but it had been thought that all of the burials had been moved to the Paris Catacombs in the eighteenth century. So far, archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have uncovered seven graves that contain the remains of up to 20 individuals. An eighth grave holds the remains of more than 150 people. “What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals—men, women and children—were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” archaeologist Isabelle Abadie told The Telegraph. Further study and carbon dating could tell archaeologists more about the burials. To read about a similar discovery, see "Barcelona's Black Death Victims."

Wealthy Woman’s Medieval Grave Found at Grey Friars Site

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—A lead coffin enclosed in a larger limestone sarcophagus was unearthed at the site of the Grey Friars dig, which also yielded the grave of King Richard III. The coffin contained the skeletal remains of an elderly woman who may have been a benefactor of the friary since she had been buried inside the church, perhaps near the high altar. “The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche. Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact,” said Mathew Morris of the University of Leicester. Analysis of the bones shows that she ate a protein-rich diet rich that included large amounts of sea fish. “This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices. This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of people in medieval Leicester,” Morris added. To read about the discovery of Richard III's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."