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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, August 11

Biological Evidence Favors Coastal Route for Ice-Age Migrants

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Traveling south from Alaska to the region now known as the continental United States via an inland route would have been impossible for the earliest Ice-Age migrants, according to a report by the Associated Press on recent research led by Eske Willerslev of Cambridge University and the University of Copenhagen. Willerslev and his team tested cores taken from nine former lake beds in northeastern British Columbia for the presence of pollen, fossils, and animal DNA. They found that when a passable corridor through Canada’s ice sheets opened up some 13,000 years ago, it would have been unable to support human life. “The land was completely naked and barren,” said Mikkel Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen. The analysis of the core samples also suggests that bison, hare, and sagebrush began to appear in the corridor around 12,600 years ago, when archaeological evidence indicates people were already inhabiting the Americas. The first migrants likely traveled along the Pacific coast, Willerslev explained. To read in-depth about evidence of early settlement of the Americas, go to "America, in the Beginning."

Excavation of Montpelier’s Slave Quarters Continues

ORANGE COUNTY, VIRGINIA—NBC reports that the foundation of the North Dwelling, which housed enslaved people in the nineteenth century, has been found in the South Yard at Montpelier, James Madison’s estate. The building was one of six structures in the South Yard that together housed around 100 enslaved African-American workers during Madison’s lifetime. Senior research archaeologist Terry Brock explained that two other dwellings unearthed in the South Yard were “double quarters” that had central chimneys with two rooms on either side. The North Dwelling consisted of a single room with a chimney on the end. “We’re trying to capture the authenticity of Montpelier in terms of what existed here in the nineteenth century,” said Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology. To read more about excavations relating to slavery, go to "Letter from Virginia: Free Before Emancipation."

Human Remains Unearthed at Temple of Zeus at Mount Lykaion

ATHENS, GREECE—The Associated Press reports that the 3,000-year-old skeleton of a teenager has been discovered at the remote sanctuary of Zeus on the summit of Mount Lykaion. Thousands of animals were sacrificed to Zeus at the site, beginning around the sixteenth century B.C. The human remains were found among the ashes of the animals. The body had been laid between two lines of stones on an east-west axis. Stone slabs covered the pelvis, and the upper part of the skull was missing. Pottery placed with the bones dates them to the eleventh century B.C. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumors that human sacrifice took place at the altar, but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said David Romano of the University of Arizona. Only about seven percent of the altar has been excavated. For more, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

New Technique Could Identify Markers of Starvation in Teeth

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—Evidence of starvation could be found through the analysis of the levels of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in teeth, according to a report in The Guardian. The composition of dentine collagen reflects the diet during childhood, at the time the tooth was growing. Julia Beaumont of the University of Bradford and Janet Montgomery of Durham University tested one tooth from each of 20 adults and children whose remains were unearthed from a workhouse cemetery in Kilkenny, Ireland, where almost 1,000 victims of the Great Famine were interred. Some of the adults had lived through earlier periods of food shortages before the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852. The scientists also examined bone collagen from the skeletons’ ribs, which reflects the diet during the few years before death. Because the residents of the workhouse had been given maize, imported from America, to eat, the researchers were able to identify this change in the diet and mark the condition of the teeth just before the change took place, when the people were starving. “We’re seeing evidence here of the body virtually eating itself as starvation gets a grip,” Beaumont said. For more, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."

Wednesday, August 10

Early Hunters May Have Thrown Stones

LEEDS, ENGLAND—Researchers led by Andrew Wilson of Leeds Beckett University analyzed 55 round and almost round stones from the Cave of Hearths, located in South Africa’s Makapan Valley. Known as spheroids, such stones are regularly found at archaeological sites that are between 1.8 million and 70,000 years old. Previous studies have suggested that spheroids may have been used as shaping or grinding tools, but Wilson and scientists from the University of Wyoming, the University of Liverpool, and Indiana University suggest they were instead used for hunting. The Irish Times reports that the team simulated the damage that spheroids could inflict on a medium-sized prey animal, like an impala, if thrown by an expert, and found that about 80 percent of the stones that they tested could have caused damage if thrown from distances measuring up to 80 feet. Wilson explained that distance from the prey helped keep the hunter safe, and that choosing the right stone was important—it had to be heavy enough to inflict damage yet still light enough to be thrown at a high speed. Stone projectiles would also have been useful for driving away other dangerous carnivores. To read about the evolution of humans' throwing ability, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Roman Fresco Fragments Uncovered in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Hundreds of fragments of brightly colored Roman frescoes have been discovered in Zippori National Park by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The site, also known as Sepphoris, was a Jewish urban center in the Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The Jerusalem Post reports that the images on the fragments include figures of a lion’s head, a horned animal, a bird, and a tiger’s hindquarters, as well as floral patterns and geometric motifs. The paintings are thought to have decorated one or more rooms in a monumental public structure built during the early second century A.D. The center of the building featured a stone-paved courtyard and a side portico. Underground vaults that served as water cisterns were found to the west and north of the courtyard. The building was dismantled in antiquity and a new structure was built on the same location. To read about a famous set of frescoes from Pompeii, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

6,500-Year-Old Gold Bead Found in Bulgaria

PAZARDZHIK, BULGARIA—Archaeologist Yavor Boyadzhiev of the Bulgarian Academy of Science has found a tiny gold bead that he claims could be the world’s oldest gold artifact. Reuters reports that the bead, unearthed in southern Bulgaria, dates to between 4500 and 4600 B.C. “I have no doubt that it is older than the Varna gold,” Boyadzhiev said, referring to jewelry discovered at a Copper Age site near the Black Sea in 1972. He explained that the bead was found in a house at a fortified settlement dating back to 6000 B.C. that he thinks was founded by migrants from Anatolia. More than 150 ceramic bird figurines have also been found at the site, which was destroyed by invaders around 4100 B.C. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Scientists Crack the Case of Piltdown Man

LONDON, ENGLAND—A multidisciplinary team of English researchers has conducted an analysis of the Piltdown specimens, a collection of forged fossils supposedly representing a human ancestor that were first “discovered” in 1912 by amateur scientist Charles Dawson. The fossils were determined to be fakes in 1953, and several people were considered as possible suspects in the hoax, including Dawson himself, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The analysis suggests, however, that the “fossils” were created and planted at the two Piltdown sites by a single person, likely to be Dawson. The same reddish-brown stain had been applied to all of the bones to make them look old, and the bones had all been packed with dentist’s putty and local gravel. The shape of the molars found at both Piltdown I and Piltdown II, and DNA analysis, suggest that the teeth, which had been ground down to make them look more human, all came from a single orangutan. “What we’ve been able to demonstrate is a signature, a fingerprint throughout all of these specimens, even including the second molar from the second Piltdown site,” Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University told BBC News. For more, go to "Bogus! An Introduction to Dubious Discoveries."

Tuesday, August 09

Four Medieval Skeletons Found in Ireland

KILKENNY, IRELAND—Four well-preserved skeletons dating to the medieval period were found just 14 inches below the surface in the graveyard at St. Mary’s Church. The site is the home of the Medieval Mile Museum, in an area designated for a service trench. The skeletons are thought to represent a woman around the age of 25; a woman in her teens or early 20s, who had a damaged spine and one leg that was shorter than the other; and two children around eight years old, one of whom probably had a severe iron deficiency. “The four skeletons can be dated to circa A.D. 1250-1350 based on pottery found in their graves, meaning they are of the first few generations of Anglo-Norman colonists in Kilkenny,” Cóilín Ó Drisceoil of Kilkenny Archaeology said in a UTV Ireland report. He explained that the location of the burials and the lack of coffins suggests that they were poor people. The excavators found green stains on the bones that may have been left by copper-alloy shroud pins. The remains will be removed for further study, but may eventually be returned to St. Mary’s for burial. To read about another skeleton found in Ireland, go to "Irish Roots." 

Ambling Horses May Have Originated in Medieval England

BERLIN, GERMANY—Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research led an international team of researchers in a genetic study of gaited horses. All horses can walk, trot, canter, and gallop, but certain breeds of horse have a mutation on a single gene that produces a smooth, four-beat gait known as the amble. The team analyzed DNA samples from 90 horses that lived between 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. They found the mutation in samples from two horses whose remains, unearthed in England, date to between A.D. 850 and 900, and in ten out of 13 samples from horse remains unearthed in Iceland. These horses lived between the ninth and eleventh centuries. None of the samples from mainland Europe carried the mutation that produces the amble. “As far as we know today, ambling horses originated in early medieval England and spread around Eurasia within a few centuries,” Ludwig told The Guardian. He suggests that the Vikings may have transported their comfortable mounts from England to Iceland, where they were bred for the trait. For more, go to "The Story of the Horse."

Shifting Sands Reveal Petroglyphs on a Hawaiian Beach

HONOLULU, HAWAII—A series of at least 17 petroglyphs estimated to be 400 years old was revealed by shifting sands on the Waianae coast of Oahu. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the U.S. Army have been working to record and protect the images, which are etched into the sandstone. “We can now come up with a plan to further protect and preserve this site,” Army archaeologist Alton Exzabe told the Honolulu Star Advertiser. He explained that one of the glyphs—a human figure—measures between four and five feet from head to toe and has distinct hands and fingers. He explained that many petroglyphs in Hawaii are about one foot tall. “They are an important part of Hawaii’s culture and while sands have covered them again, in time they will reappear and we want to make sure people know that they are fragile and culturally sensitive and should only be viewed; not touched,” added Alan Downer, administrator for the DLNR State Historic Preservation Division. For more, go to "Letter from Hawaii: Inside Kauai's Past."

Gold Curse Tablets Unearthed in Serbia

BELGRADE, SERBIA—Engraved pieces of gold and silver foil have been found rolled up inside two lead amulets in fourth-century graves at the Roman site of Viminacium in eastern Serbia, according to a Reuters report. The texts on the small pieces of foil are thought to be magic spells intended to invoke divine powers of good and evil. “The alphabet is Greek, that much we know. The language is Aramaic—it’s a Middle Eastern mystery to us,” said Viminacium’s chief archaeologist, Miomir Korac. Archaeologist Ilija Dankovic added that the names of demons connected to an area of what is now Syria have been read on the tiny scrolls, which resemble Roman lead curse tablets. Viminacium, home to some 40,000 inhabitants, was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Archaeologists are excavating the graves before the expansion of a nearby power station. For more on curse tablets, go to "Cursing the Competition."