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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, August 04

Rare Golden Ornament Unearthed in England

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—A gold ornament, thought to be one of the earliest pieces of metalwork in the United Kingdom, was unearthed by four school-aged children during a community excavation at Kirkhaugh. The burial mound at the site was first excavated in 1935 by Herbert Maryon, who unearthed a matching ornament. The tresses, which date to 2,300 B.C., were probably worn in the hair, perhaps by someone who traveled to Britain in search of gold and copper. “It can be regarded as marking the very start of mineral exploitation in the North Pennines, leading in due course to Roman exploitation of lead and silver, and eventually to the vast post-medieval lead industry for which the region is internationally famous,” Paul Frodsham of Altogether Archaeology told The Express

Did Lower Testosterone Levels Correlate With Rise of Technology?

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—After measuring more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls, Robert Cieri of the University of Utah argues that human skulls changed in ways that indicate testosterone levels dropped some 50,000 years ago, at the same time that human culture blossomed. “The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament,” he told Science Daily. Heads became rounder without heavy brows, which can be traced to lower levels of testosterone, according to Steven Churchill, an anthropologist at Duke University who supervised Cieri’s undergraduate work. “If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they’d have to be tolerant of each other. The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another,” Cieri explained.   

Rescue Excavation Uncovers Royal Chinese Tombs

NANJING, CHINA—Live Science reports that archaeologists Li Zebin, Chen Gang, and Sheng Zhihan of Nanjing Museum recovered an intact jade coffin and more than 10,000 artifacts from a mausoleum consisting of three main tombs, 11 attendant tombs, two pits containing five life-sized chariots, and two weaponry pits holding iron swords, spearheads, crossbow triggers, halberds, knives, and more than 20 models of chariots. Burial chambers belonging to Liu Fei, a king of Jiangdu who died in 128 B.C., held artifacts made of gold, silver, bronze, jade, and lacquer. He had been buried with musical instruments such as chime bells, zither bridges, and jade tuning pegs. More than 100,000 banliang coins, lamps, and a kitchen stocked with food and cooking utensils had been left behind by looters, who took the king’s remains. “Near the coffins many jade pieces and fragments, originally parts of the jade burial suit, were discovered. These pieces also indicate that the inner coffin, originally lacquered and inlaid with jade plaques, was exquisitely manufactured,” the research team wrote in an article that appears in translation in the journal Chinese Archaeology. The intact jade coffin was recovered from an adjacent tomb. “Although the central chamber was looted, the structure of the jade coffin is still intact, which is the only undamaged jade coffin discovered in the history of Chinese archaeology,” they added. 

Friday, August 01

Archaeologist Finds Roman Bones on the Way Home

YORK, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that Mike Heyworth, the president of the Council for British Archaeology, made a startling discovery on his own street as he walked home from work. In a trench dug by a utilities company, he spied fragments of Roman bone, including a jaw with teeth, as well as pottery. The workers were digging not far from a Roman cemetery where the remains of 80 gladiators were found in 2010, but evidently they were not obligated to have an archaeologist to monitor their project. The work has been halted and an archaeologist will examine the trenches for more evidence of Roman remains and artifacts. 

Your Teeth Tell Your Story

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—The University of Florida reports that geologist George Kamenov has demonstrated that trace amounts of lead in human teeth can be used to figure out where people came from. The four isotopes that make up lead change according to the rocks, soil, and ores in each part of the world, and can be identified in teeth because tooth enamel, which develops during childhood, preserves the lead. “When you grow up, you record the signal of the local environment,” Kamenov explains. “If you move somewhere else, your isotope will be distinct from the local population.” Archaeologists can use the information from teeth to identify, for example, the presence of Europeans in the New World to trace human migrations.  

Terracotta Army Mystery Solved

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Since their discovery in 1974, China’s first emperor’s almost 2,000-year-old terracotta army has been the subject of almost continual study—but until now scientists have not been able to figure out how the colorful pigments which decorate the figures adhered to their surface. According to a report in the Science China Press, researchers at the College of Chemistry and Materials Science, Northwest University in Xi'an, have used sophisticated technology, including lasers and mass spectrometry, to isolate the substance, a challenge made all the harder, explain the researchers, because "following almost 22 centuries of storage under these conditions, the remaining pieces of original polychromy that have survived on the sculptures contain extremely small amounts of the binding media.” Now the substance has been identified as East Asian lacquer obtained from lacquer tree applied directly to the surfaces of the warriors in one or two layers as a base coat.  

Thursday, July 31

Graves of Dublin's Viking Warriors

DUBLIN, IRELAND—After 15 years of study, archaeologists are ready to release a massive report that collects and presents evidence for the astounding number of Viking warrior burials beneath the streets of Dublin, reports the Irish Central. The burials, which date to between A.D. 841 and 902, represent the “largest burial complex of its type in western Europe, Scandinavia excluded,” says Stephen Harrison, who co-authored the 800-page report. It has long been thought that ancient annals that reported that there were vast numbers of Viking warriors in Dublin were greatly exaggerated, but now the great number of burials, along with the impressive grave goods the Vikings have been found with, are evidence not only that the annals may not have exaggerated as much as previously thought, but also that during the ninth century, Dublin was a wealthy and important city.  

Investigating Unhealthy Mummies

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA—After studying ancient Egyptian, Peruvian, Native American, and Mongolian mummies, medical researchers with a group known as the HORUS study team have found evidence for narrowing of ancient peoples' arteries due to high build up of fatty deposits, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which can contribute to a number of heart problems. In modern times, atherosclerosis can be caused by smoking, obesity, lack of activity, and other factors that were presumably not present in ancient cultures. Now the Horus study team is proposing that "non-traditional" causes of atherosclerosis could explain the prevalence of the condition among the mummies they have examined. In a World Heart Federation press release, the team points out that chronic infections caused by unhygienic conditions can produce prolonged inflammatory responses that lead to a build up in atherosclerotic plaque. Inhalation of smoke from fires might also cause atherosclerosis. The researchers found that the condition seems to be more common in female mummies, which could be explained by the fact that traditionally women spent more of their time near fires.

Dark Age Necropolis Unearthed in France

SAINT-AUBIN-DES-CHAMPS, FRANCE—Researchers from France's public archaeology agency INRAP are excavating an early medieval necropolis in Normandy. Dating from the fifth to the seventh centuries A.D., the village cemetery held more than 300 burials and was not included in any surviving records from the time, an era when the Frankish Merovingian dynasty ruled the region. According to an INRAP press release, the team is particularly interested in how the site shows how ordinary people experienced the transition from the pagan beliefs of the Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity. Earlier burials in the cemetery feature skeletons buried with lavish grave goods, such as a woman found wearing pins in the shape of bronze trumpets, and a man buried with twenty objects, including an ax, spear, dagger, and a silver coin placed in his mouth. Later burials do not seem to include as many artifacts, reflecting the growing influence of Christianity, which did not encourage the villagers to take objects with them into the afterlife.

Gods on the Roman Frontier

CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—While digging at the ancient Roman site of Maryport, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a large, stone circular structure in front of what dig director Ian Haynes of Newcastle University says is “the most north-westerly classical temple in the Roman world to be discovered so far,” according to Culture24. The rectangular temple dates from the second century A.D. and the circular structure associated with it was likely an impressive monument of some kind, perhaps a large, freestanding column. The ancient remains at Maryport were originally found in the late nineteenth century, and much remains to be discovered, says Haynes. The fort at Maryport was a crucial part of the Roman Empire’s border defenses for at least three centuries, and the classical temple would have been a reminder of home for the soldiers stationed on this remote north-west frontier of the vast empire, explains Nigel Mills, the heritage advisor to the Hadrian’s Wall Trust.  

Head of Ice Age Lion Sculpture Found

VOLGELHERD CAVE, SOUTHWESTERN GERMANY—Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen have unearthed a small fragment of mammoth ivory that is part of a figurine of a lion, reports PhysOrg. The 40,000-year-old sculpture is one of the most famous works of Ice Age art and was originally discovered during excavations in the cave in 1931. According to Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard, the lion was originally thought to be a relief—making it unique for this period. However, with the small fragment of one side of the lion’s head now reattached, it is clear that the figurine is, in fact, three-dimensional. "The site has yielded a wealth of objects that illuminate the development of early symbolic artifacts dating to the period when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals,” says Conard, including evidence of the world’s earliest figurative art and music.