Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, October 21

Island Chiefdom May Offer Insight Into Complex Societies

DALLAS, TEXAS—Fox News reports that Mark McCoy of Southern Methodist University and his team calculated the age of Nan Madol, a capital ruled by a single chief on the Pacific island of Pohnpei. Using uranium-thorium dating, the researchers found that the tomb where Nan Madol’s first chief was buried dates back to A.D. 1180, or about 100 years earlier than similar tombs elsewhere in the Pacific. McCoy described Nan Madol as the first site in the remote Pacific islands to serve as a seat of political power, religious rituals, and monumental burial. This information could help researchers understand how human societies evolved more complex, hierarchical systems. “The main finding here was the discovery of strong archaeological evidence of [the] rise of the first chiefs to rule the island,” McCoy said. “Something that of course is described in Pohnpei’s own oral histories, but with the results described in our new paper, can now be compared to other islands in the Pacific and societies around the world.” To read in-depth about another Pacific island, go to “Letter From the Marshall Islands: Defuzing the Past.”

Possible Third 16th-Century Ship Found in Florida Waters

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—The Pensacola News Journal reports that archaeologists and students from the University of West Florida have found a third shipwreck in Pensacola Bay. All three ships are thought to have been part of Don Tristan de Luna’s expedition, which included 11 ships and 1,500 people sent to colonize Florida for Spain. One month after Luna arrived in 1559 on the northern Gulf Coast, a hurricane sank many of the ships and wiped out much of the expedition’s supplies. The newly discovered ship, found in shallower water than the two previously discovered, may have been La Salvadora, a smaller ship that had been built in the New World. “We’ll take the wood sample soon and see what it’s made out of,” said historian John Worth, who has been studying the Luna settlement, which was discovered last year. “Is it a New World species or Old World species? If it turned out to be [La Salvadora] that would be really exciting, because that would be the earliest ship built in the New World that’s documented,” he explained. So far, the team has found ballast stones, iron concretions, an articulated hull, planking, and ceramics. The Luna expedition ended in 1561, when Spanish ships rescued the surviving colonists and returned them to Mexico. For more, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”

Homo Habilis May Have Been Right Handed

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—HealthDay News reports that University of Kansas professor emeritus David Frayer has found evidence of right-handedness in a Homo habilis specimen. He and his team conducted experiments to re-create scratch marks similar to the ones found on 1.8-million-year-old Homo habilis teeth found in Tanzania. Most of the marks, located on the lip side of the specimen’s upper front teeth, veer from the left down to the right. The team members suggest that the marks were made when the hominin used a stone tool, held in the right hand, to cut food held with the teeth and the left hand. Frayer explained that Homo habilis was already thought to have had lateralization of the brain, meaning that each side of the brain has functional specializations for tasks such as handedness and language. Further research could show that how the brain is organized may be important in identifying the origins of human ancestors. For more, go to “Earliest Stone Tools.”

Thursday, October 20

Cache of 8,000-Year-Old Animal Bones Found in Mexico

NUEVO LEÓN, MEXICO—Prensa Latina reports that archaeologist Araceli Rivera of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has found animal remains that may have been used in rituals some 8,000 years ago. The remains include the teeth, long bones, skulls, ribs, and vertebrae of mammoths, camels, horses, llamas, and prehistoric bison. The bones had been placed in a rock shelter and covered with a rectangular stone that researchers have dubbed La Boveda, or The Vault. The researchers think The Vault may have been illuminated during the winter solstice, at a time when food may have been scarce. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Possible Evidence of Roman Attack Found in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Guardian reports that Rina Avner and Kfir Arbib of the Israel Antiquities Authority have found evidence of a 2,000-year-old watchtower and a wall that protected a “new” area of Jerusalem that had developed outside of the city’s two existing defensive walls. The Jewish historian Josephus described Titus’s breach of such a third wall in A.D. 70, when Roman legions invaded, sacked the city, and destroyed the Second Temple. Large stones that the Romans may have fired from catapults at the sentries in the tower have also been uncovered. It is thought that Roman forces used battering rams on the wall while the catapults provided cover. To read about another discovery in Jerusalem, go to “Rubaiyat Pot.”

New Thoughts on Ancient Stone Flakes

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Live Science reports that capuchin monkeys living in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park have been observed banging rocks against one another, an action that produces a cobble with a single flat side that is called a “unifacial chopper” by archaeologists. Unifacial choppers bear telltale scallop-shell-shaped breakages called conchoidal fractures. It had been thought that such modified stones were only made by hominins. According to observations made during the study, the monkeys sometimes lick the rocks, perhaps to ingest lichens or minerals, but they don’t use them as tools. Instead, they use other rocks to break open nuts. Researcher Tomos Proffitt of the University of Oxford says the study shows that modern primates can produce some types of artifacts that have until now been attributed to hominins alone, and will require scientists to rethink how they determine whether a stone tool was made by a human ancestor or human relative. For more, go to “The Neolithic Toolkit.”

Wednesday, October 19

Engraved Stone May Have Been a Neolithic Map

BORNHOLM, DENMARK—The Copenhagen Post reports that an engraved stone fragment discovered at the Neolithic site of Vasagård on the island of Bornhom could be a map. Archaeologist Flemming Kaul of the National Museum of Denmark said that other stones inscribed with lines and rectangles have been found at the site, and it had been thought that the markings depicted the sun and its rays. This partial stone is now thought to show the details of an area of the island as it appeared between 2700 and 2900 B.C. Some of the markings may represent plants with leaves. “These are not accidental scratches,” he said. “We see the stones as types of maps showing different kinds of fields.” To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Skara Brae Residents May Have Snacked on Rodents

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—The Los Angeles Times reports that rodents may have been a source of food at Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement on the Orkney Islands. Biologist Jeremy Herman of the National Museums of Scotland and his team evaluated some 60,000 small mammal bones collected from four trenches at the site in the 1970s. The scientists found that the number of wood mouse bones was equal in all four trenches, but one of the trenches had a greater number of bones from the Orkney vole than the others. And, since voles, which are slightly bigger than mice, are thought to usually stay away from people, the animals may have been brought to the area. Some of the bones also bear burn marks. “The way they are burnt it’s pretty clear that they were pretty much whole when they were stuck on the embers of a fire,” Herman said. “I haven’t tried it myself, but I imagine they got pretty crisp on the outside.” He thinks the small rodents may have served as a snack, a food for lean times, or something that children caught and roasted. To read in-depth about excavations on Orkney, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Drones Used to Map the Plain of Jars in Laos

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Canberra Times reports that CAVE2 technology, based at Monash University, has been used to map three excavation sites on the Plain of Jars, an archaeological site in a remote area of Laos with carved stone jars that stand nearly ten feet tall. Drones are being used to collect the footage for the project. The team of researchers will then create a 3-D replica of the excavations and the entire Plain of Jars landscape. “It hasn’t really been researched on this scale since the 1930s and what our project hopes to show is exactly what the jars were for, when they were produced, and who made them,” said Dougald O’Reilly of Australian National University. Information collected with ground-penetrating radar was fed into the CAVE2 system to create the underground view of the excavation area. O’Reilly also plans to evaluate the site with lidar technology, which can detect archaeological remains beneath heavy foliage, and add that information to the virtual 3-D reconstruction. For more, go to “Drones Enter the Archaeologist's Toolkit.”

German WWI Submarine Found Off the Coast of Scotland

STRANRAER, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a German U–boat dating to the First World War was discovered off the coast of Scotland by a team laying subsea power cables. The vessel is thought to be UB-85, one of two UBIII-Class submarines known to have been lost in the Irish Sea. After being picked up by HM Drifter Coreopsis, the captain and crew of UB-85 claimed to have done battle with a sea monster that damaged the vessel so badly that it could no longer submerge. But nautical archaeologist Innes McCartney says that when the British ship approached the submarine on the surface at night, the crew of the German vessel may have tried to submerge quickly, started taking on water, and had to resurface and surrender. Identifying the newly discovered wreck with confidence may be impossible, however, as the UBIII-Class submarines were all very similar. “Unless a diver can find a shipyard stamp, we cannot say definitively, but yes, we’re certainly closer to solving the so-called mystery of UB-85 and the reason behind its sinking—whether common mechanical failure or something that is less easily explained,” McCartney said. To read about attempts to identify another recently discovered shipwreck, go to “Is it Esmeralda?