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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, June 06

Evidence of Early Campfires Found in Europe

MURCIA, SPAIN—Science News reports that paleontologist Michael Walker of the University of Murcia and his colleagues have found evidence for the earliest controlled use of small fires in Europe at Cueva Negra del Estrecho del Río Quípar. The cave, located in southeastern Spain, has yielded more than 165 stones and stone artifacts and 2,300 heated or charred animal-bone fragments. Microscopic and chemical analysis of these objects indicates that they were heated to between 750 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures consistent with having been burned in fire. Walker thinks the fires were started by human ancestors some 800,000 years ago, based upon the identification of a reversal in the Earth’s magnetic field some 780,000 years ago in sediments above the burned artifacts. Fossils of extinct animals have also been found with the stone tools. Some scientists question the early date and think the tools are at most 600,000 years old. That would still make the fires the earliest known in Europe. For more on archaeology in Spain, go to "The Red Lady of El Mirón."

World War I-Era Training Trenches Found in Ireland

COUNTY DOWN, IRELAND— Archaeologist Heather Montgomery of Queen’s University is investigating the remains of military trenches uncovered in Northern Ireland, near the Ballykinler army base. BBC News reports that many of the men who trained in these trenches went on to fight in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Battle of Messines in 1917. “The training they did in there, did it actually help them?” asked Tony Canniford, estate manager for Ballykinler. “Is there any history within the bottom of the trenches? Most soldiers drop stuff when they’re training.” Plans to restore the trenches and open to the public are in the works. To read about a well-known World War I battlefield, go to "Letter from Turkey: Anzac's Next Chapter."

Bronze Wing May Have Graced Roman Victory Statuette

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND—A bronze wing measuring 5.5 inches long has been unearthed in southwestern England. At first it had been thought that the wing, discovered in an earthen bank behind what would have been the Roman city wall, was part of an eagle statue. But Martin Henig of Oxford University has concluded that the wing was actually part of a Roman statuette of Victoria, the goddess of victory. “It would be nice to think a retired Roman soldier, spending his retirement years in Gloucester, had a nice statuette to Victory as thanks for making it through the Roman invasion of Britain in one piece,” Neil Holbrook of Cotswold Archaeology said in a BBC News report. For more on Roman remains found in England, go to "What’s in a Name?"

Friday, June 03

Solstice Alignments Spotted in Washington, D.C., Garden

TURIN, ITALY—The statues and walkways in a symmetrical nineteenth-century garden in Washington D.C. are aligned to the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstices, according to physicist Amelia Sparavigna of Politecnico di Torino. Live Science reports that, using satellite imagery and astronomical software, Sparavigna found that the solstice sun aligns with the statue of President Andrew Jackson that stands in the center of the Lafayette Square garden. Four walkways radiate out from this statue. Standing near the statue of Andrew Jackson, it would appear that on the summer solstice, the sun rises at the northeast end of one path, and sets at the northwest end of the opposite path. On the winter solstice, the sun would appear to rise at the southeast end of another path and set at the southwest end of its opposite. Sparavigna says it is unclear why designer Andrew Jackson Downing aligned the ends of the walkways to the solstice sun. For more, go to "Letter from England: The Scientist's Garden."

Scientists Say “Lost City” Formed by Natural Phenomenon

NORWICH, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Athens and the University of East Anglia say that what looked like the paved floors, courtyards, and colonnades of a lost city in shallow waters off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos were actually created by a natural geological phenomenon up to five million years ago. According to a report in Tech Times, Julian Andrews of the University of East Anglia noticed that there wasn’t any pottery or other signs of human activity around the supposed ruins, which were discovered by recreational divers. The researchers took a closer look at the mineral content and texture of the stones with X-rays, microscopy, and stable isotope techniques. They think the column-shaped concretions are the result of mineralization at hydrocarbon seeps along a fault under the seabed. Microbes in the seafloor sediments used the methane and other gases from the fault as fuel, changing the chemistry of the sediment and forming the concretions. Erosion eventually exposed and shaped the concretions. “This kind of phenomenon is quite rare in shallow waters,” Andrews said. “Most similar discoveries tend to be many hundreds and often thousands of meters deep underwater.” For more, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb."

Thursday, June 02

New Thoughts on Dog Domestication

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A genetic study led by Laurent Frantz of the University of Oxford suggests that dogs may have been domesticated separately in Asia and in Europe or the Near East. The researchers obtained DNA from the inner ear bone of a nearly 5,000-year-old dog discovered at Newgrange, a site on the east coast of Ireland, and sequenced its entire genome. They then compared it to the nuclear DNA of 605 modern dogs from around the world and calculated a genetic mutation rate. The analysis revealed a divide between Asian dogs and European dogs between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago, and a sharp decline in the numbers of European dogs. “We never saw this split before because we didn’t have enough samples,” project leader and evolutionary biologist Greger Larson said in a report in Science. Remains of dogs found in Germany have been estimated to be more than 16,000 years old, however, suggesting that dogs could have been domesticated in Europe before migrating Asian dogs might have replaced them. “We don’t know if the dogs that evolved [early] in Europe were an evolutionary dead end, but we can safely say that their genetic legacy has mostly been erased from today’s dogs,” said Frantz. For more on dogs in archaeology, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Maya May Have Tracked Venus From Acanceh Observatory

MÉRIDA, MEXICO—According to a report in Fox News Latino and the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior, Beatriz Quintal Suaste of the Yucatán National Institute of Anthropology and History says that an observatory at the Early Classic Maya site of Acanceh may have helped priest-astronomers track the movement of the planet Venus. The third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and the moon, Venus is thought to have been represented in Maya mythology by a god named Noh Ek. The new study suggests that the southern edge of the observatory aligns with the northernmost position of Venus in the night sky. Three codexes found at the site support the idea that the ancient astronomers would have been able to track Venus’s 584-day cycle through the sky from the observatory. 

Archaeologists Return to the Judean Desert

TZEELIM VALLEY, ISRAEL—Reuters reports that Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists have returned to the Judean desert as part of a national project to rescue any artifacts remaining in cliff-side caves from looting. “These looters that operate in the area are experts at finding scrolls,” said Guy Fitoussi, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority robbery prevention unit in southern Israel. “We go after them, look for what they are looking for, and try to catch them.” His team is currently excavating the Cave of the Skulls, named for human remains thought to have belonged to Jewish rebels who hid in the cave during the Bar Kokhba rebellion some 2,000 years ago. In 2014, six people were arrested at the site, which is located on a cliff some 820 feet above a dry river bed that leads to the Dead Sea. So far, the team has recovered a piece of rope that may have been used by the Bar Kokhba rebels. To read about another find associated with the Bar Kokhba rebellion, go to "2,000-Year-Old Stashed Treasure."

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