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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, July 15

New Technique Diagnoses Historic Disease

  COVENTRY, ENGLAND—Microbial genomist Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School and his colleagues used “shotgun metagenomics” to sample all of the DNA present in the bony nodules on a 700-year-old skeleton unearthed in Sardinia. They thought that the man had suffered from tuberculosis, but the results showed the DNA signature of Brucella melitensis, a microbe caught from working with livestock or consuming contaminated milk or cheese. The disease, known as brucellosis, causes chronic fatigue and recurring fevers, and has been diagnosed in other ancient skeletons, including a possible case in the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus. Pallen’s team is now using “shotgun metagenomics” to test other historic tissue samples. “We’re cranking through all of these samples, and we’re hopeful that we’re going to find new things,” he told Live Science.  

Tonga Served as a Pacific Trade Hub

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—According to Phys.org, Geoffrey Clark of Australian National University and his colleagues think that Tonga served as a trade hub and the seat of a maritime empire for people across Polynesia in the first half of the second century A.D. The team analyzed more than 500 stone artifacts found in Tongan political centers, and traced the types of rocks to different Central Pacific islands. They found that two-thirds of the stone tools had been imported from Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti, some 2,500 miles away from Tonga. Yet very few stone tools in Samoa were imports. Valuable goods and ideas could have been shared by people throughout Polynesia in areas formed by Tongan rulers’ centralizing authority.

Gomphotheres Added to Clovis Menu

  TUCSON, ARIZONA—Clovis projectile points and cutting tools have been found mingled with the bones of two juvenile gomphotheres, elephant-like relatives of mastadons and mammoths, in northwestern Mexico. Gomphotheres are known to have been hunted in Central and South America, but this is the first time such evidence has been found in North America. “At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison. We finally found the mandible, and that’s what told the tale,” Vance Holliday of the University of Arizona told Science Daily. The bones have been dated to 13,400 years ago, making them the last known gomphotheres in North America.   

Pathogen Identified in Ötzi’s Bone Sample

BOLZANO, ITALY—A bone sample taken from the natural mummy known as Ötzi, found in a melting glacier on the Austrian-Italian border by hikers 1991, was used to decode his genome. Now a team of experts from the European Academy of Bolzano (EURAC) and the University of Vienna analyzed the non-human DNA in the sample and identified traces of Treponema denticola, a pathogen involved in the development of periodontal disease. And, in fact, the Iceman was diagnosed with periodontitis with a computer tomography scan last year. “What is new is that we did not carry out a directed DNA analysis but rather investigated the whole spectrum of DNA to better understand which organisms are in this sample,” Frank Maixner of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman told Science Daily. The team of scientists also detected Clostridia-like bacteria in the bone sample that are thought to be in a dormant state. If they were to grow, they could cause the 5,300-year-old mummy’s tissues to degrade. Continued preservation of the Iceman will require additional micro-biological monitoring.

Monday, July 14

The Skeletons of Jebel Sahaba

LONDON, ENGLAND—New technology has detected dozens of additional wounds on skeletons excavated from a 13,000-year-old cemetery on the east bank of the Nile River in northern Sudan. The bones were unearthed in the 1960s by American archaeologist Fred Wendorf, when arrow heads were found and their impact marks were noted. The bones were eventually moved to the British Museum, and they have also been studied by scientists from Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Alaska, and Tulane University. “The skeletal material is of great importance—not only because of the evidence for conflict, but because the Jebel Sahaba cemetery is the oldest discovered in the Nile Valley so far,” Daniel Antoine, a curator in the British Museum’s Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department, told The Independent. The new research indicates that the men, women, and children had been killed by enemy archers over time, during the drought of the Younger Dryas period. Human ethnic groups would have been drawn to the waters of the Nile, where they would have inevitably clashed. The victims are said to be from the world’s oldest-known large-scale armed human conflict. Further study will investigate the health of the victims at the time of death.

Ornamental Paws With Claws Discovered in Moche Tomb

  TRUJILLO, PERU—The tomb of a male ruler has been discovered at the Huaca de la Luna, or Temple of the Moon, in the ancient Moche capital of Cerro Blanco in northern Peru. In addition to the man’s remains, the 1,500-year-old tomb held a copper scepter, bronze earrings, a mask, and sharpened metal claws shaped like feline paws that may have been part of a ritual full-body costume. Santiago Uceda, co-director of the excavation, thinks that the paws may have been used in ceremonial combat. He told El Comercio that the winner of the battle would receive the costume, while the loser would be sacrificed.    

Neo-Assyrian Information Technology

  CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Excavations in southeastern Turkey, in the lower town of Tušhan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, have uncovered hundreds of clay tokens dating to the first millennium B.C. It had been thought that record-keeping with such tokens had been replaced with cuneiform two thousand years earlier, but these tokens were found in two rooms that may have served as a delivery area in an administrative building. “We think one of two things happened here. You either have information about livestock coming through here, or flocks of animals themselves. Each farmer or herder would have a bag with tokens to represent their flock,” John MacGinnis of the MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge told Science Daily. The information collected with the tokens would have been recorded onto cuneiform tablets somewhere else. “The tokens provided a system of moveable numbers that allowed for stock to be moved and accounts to be modified and updated without committing to writing; a system that doesn’t require everyone involved to be literate,” he explained. MacGinnis hopes that the codes of the token system will one day be fully understood.     

Friday, July 11

The Search for Jean Ribault’s Lost French Fleet

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA—Chuck Meide of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program will partner with the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state of Florida, the Institute of Maritime History, and the Center for Historical Archaeology in Melbourne to look for a French fleet lost in 1565 off Florida’s Atlantic coast. Jean Ribault, leader of the fleet, was planning to attack the Spanish colony at St. Augustine with his four largest ships when a hurricane pushed the heavily armed vessels to the south and then sank them. “It was a storm that literally changed American history,” Meide told the Florida Times-Union. The Protestant French settlement at Fort Caroline was soon destroyed by the Catholic Spanish, who also killed Ribault and the other shipwreck survivors. Meide’s ongoing expedition will employ a shrimp boat outfitted with sonar and a magnetometer to search for French cannons, cannonballs, and other artifacts. “It is Florida’s origin story, so it is also the story of the birth of our nation,” he said. 

Congenital Hernia Diagnosed in 17th-Century Korean Mummy

ANDONG, SOUTH KOREA—Yi-Suk Kim of Ewha Womans University in Seoul and colleagues conducted an autopsy on the mummified remains of an approximately 45-year-old man who had been buried in a royal tomb of the Chosun Dynasty. Live Science reports that the team found the right lobe of the man’s liver, part of his stomach, and part of his colon pushed through in a hole in his diaphragm. The man had suffered from a Bochdalek-type congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) that may have caused pain in his chest and abdomen, but the herniated organs had not perforated or strangulated, so the condition may not have been the cause of death. “He could have lived with CDH in this lifetime while experiencing a few signs of respiratory disturbances. We suspected that the functional defects caused by the CDH in the present male mummy case might have been largely compensated for as he grew older,” the authors report in PLOS One

Spring Water Bottle Recovered From Baltic Sea Shipwreck

GDAŃSK, POLAND—A perfectly preserved stoneware bottle produced between 1806 and 1830 has been recovered from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea. The corked bottle had been carrying mineral water from Selters, a naturally carbonated spring in Germany’s Taunus mountain range. “The bottle contains a liquid, and for sure it’s not seawater,” underwater archaeologist Tomasz Bednarz of the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk told Discovery News. The bottle probably contains original Selters water, but it may have been reused and filled with wine. It will be opened under laboratory conditions. 

17th-Century Crucifix Unearthed in Newfoundland

  FERRYLAND, NEWFOUNDLAND—A small copper crucifix with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on its back has been unearthed at the Colony of Avalon site on the coast of Newfoundland. The territory had been granted to George Calvert, who became the first Lord Baltimore, in 1620. Calvert, a Catholic, envisioned the colony as place free of religious persecution for all Christians at a time when Catholics could be fined, imprisoned, or executed in England. The crucifix was discovered among ceramic fragments, bones, nails, and debris associated with the construction of a large stone house that had been built for Calvert sometime after 1623. “As artifacts go, this particular object is quite exceptional. The Catholic iconography is unmistakable,” archaeologist Barry Gaulton of the Colony of Avalon and Memorial University of Newfoundland told The Telegram. Archaeological conservator Donna Teasdale is cleaning and conserving the crucifix. “The smooth, almost polished, surfaces on the crucifix lead me to believe that it was definitely part of a rosary. It was rubbed repeatedly over a period of time,” she said. It may have belonged to Calvert or the colony’s second governor, Sir Arthur Aston, or even a craftsman who had been working on the house.