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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, July 16

Electron Microscope Detects 14,000-Year-Old Dental Treatment

BOLOGNA, ITALY—Stefano Benazzi of the University of Bologna and Marco Peresani of the University of Ferrara found microscopic markings on the surface of a large cavity in a 14,000-year-old molar that “were the result of a variety of gestures and movements associated with slicing a microlithic point in different directions,” Benazzi told Discovery News. They then conducted tests on the enamel of three molars with wood, bone, and microlithic points to confirm that the infected tissue in the ancient cavity had been picked away from the tooth with a small, sharp stone tool. “This shows that Later Upper Paleolithic humans were aware about the deleterious effects of caries, and the need to intervene with an invasive treatment to clean a deep dental cavity,” Benazzi said. Wear on the tooth shows that the treatment had been conducted long before the man died at the age of 25. His remains were discovered in 1988 in a rock shelter in northern Italy. “The treatment went unnoticed for all these years. The cavity was described as a simple carious lesion,” Benazzi said. For more on prehistoric dentistry, go to "Fixing Ancient Toothaches."

Traces of a Port That May Have Served Old Goa Found

PANAJI, INDIA—Researchers from India’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) have uncovered an ancient wall along the Zuari River that could be the remains of a port on the country’s central west coast. It is estimated to be between 1,000 and 3,500 years old. “This area was earlier known as Gopakapattinam. The exploration work on the site is done and scientists have found the steps going in the water. It is imminent that existence of such a big wall parallel to the river indicates that it is remnant of a port,” Rajiv Nigam, head of the Marine Archaeology unit of the NIO, told NDTV. The researchers plan to date the sediments with radiocarbon and thermo-luminance techniques, and conduct a survey of the area with ground-penetrating radar. Nigam thinks the port may have served the ancient capital of Goa. “If the project comes through it will be a big discovery for the central west coast of India. This was a very flourishing harbor of ancient time,” he explained. To read more about archaeology in India, go to "Oceans of Dharma."

Accused Vandal Could Be Assigned Research Paper

ADAMS COUNTY, OHIO—A 19-year-old man who has confessed to taking a joy ride over an ancient earthwork near Serpent Mound could face prison time, more than $3,000 in damages, community service, and a research paper. “He has been cooperative, so we’re working with him. But I don’t think he appreciates the significance of the site, the gravity of what he’s done,” Adams County Assistant Prosecutor Ken Armstrong told The young man allegedly jumped the curb of the parking lot at the monument and drove his pick-up truck over a 2,000-year-old Adena mound. Park Manager Tim Goodwin says the tire marks will be repaired by replacing the sod. Acts of vandalism at the site are rare, but Goodwin explained that additional security cameras will be installed. Serpent Mound has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. “It deserves the respect of the world,” said archaeologist Brad Lepper. For more on the site, go to "Who Built the Great Serpent Mound?"

Wednesday, July 15

700-Year-Old Objects Recovered in Oxford, England

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Excavations ahead of the construction of a shopping center have uncovered hundreds of objects, including 50 medieval leather shoes, a leather bag, a wooden bowl, and timber posts that had been placed in muddy stream banks. “These finds are as rare as gold,” project director Ben Ford of Oxford Archaeology told BBC News. “It’s amazing to think these shoes were worn by people who walked the streets of medieval Oxford.” The excavation covers an area that was just outside the Oxford city walls at the time, where a friary for the Greyfriars religious order stood. To read about another medieval excavation in Oxford, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."

Intact Pot Unearthed at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—An intact pot has been unearthed for the first time at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. Its small size may have helped to keep it in one piece. “It was less than a meter below the surface of the ground but it still had weight on it. We’re fortunate,” executive director Cindy Gregg told The Mitchell Republic. Residues from the pot, which will be tested at the University of Exeter, could provide information on what the pot was used for. Gregg thinks the pot may have been held paints or served as a child’s toy. To read more about archaeology on the Great Plains, go to "Letter From Montana: The Buffalo Chasers."

Gold Coins Hidden During the Nazi Era Discovered in Germany

HAMBURG, GERMANY—A metal detectorist discovered a cache of gold coins dating between 1831 and 1910 in a field in northern Germany last fall. After recovering ten coins, Florian Bautsch alerted archaeologists who recovered 207 more during a two-week excavation. The coins had been minted in Belgium, France, Italy, but the team also recovered a piece of pasteboard with two seals bearing images of a swastika, an imperial eagle, and the stamp “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” The coins were probably placed in two separate pouches and buried during the last days of World War II under a tree, but were scattered when the tree was uprooted. Archaeologist Edgar Ring of the Lüneburg Museum told The Local that such limited edition coins belonged to the central bank during the Nazi era and had probably been stolen. To read about the study of military sites from this era, go to "Archaeology of WWII."

Human Hands Have Changed Little Over Time

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Sergio Almecija, Jeroen Smaers, and William Jungers of Stony Brook University measured the hand proportions of modern humans, living and fossil ape species, and human ancestors, including Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus sediba, in an effort to understand the evolution of the hand. They found that there has been relatively little change in the proportions of the human hand, which has a long thumb in relation to the fingers, since the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. This had been thought to be important to human success, but it could indicate that the structure of the human hand is largely primitive in nature, rather than the result of the selective pressures of making stone tools. The fingers of chimpanzee and orangutan hands, meanwhile, have gotten longer and more suited to living in trees. To read about the evolution of the throwing motion, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah." 

Tuesday, July 14

4,000-Year-Old Floored Structure Found in Ohio

SHEFFIELD, OHIO—A team led by Brian Redmond of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is excavating a 4,000-year-old site in northeastern Ohio. So far, they have uncovered a three-inch-thick floor made from layers of yellow clay that was carried to the site. A basin was built into the floor, along with cooking pits and storage holes that held hickory nuts. Post holes show where hickory saplings were placed and then tied together to create a framework covered with cattail mats. “A small family would be very comfortable. They were well insulated, and sheltered under the tree canopy of oaks. Unlike at other sites, they’re going to the trouble to make floors. They’re here for months at a time,” Redmond told He thinks that these hunter-gatherers migrated to the area from the southeast to spend the fall and winter for a period of some 200 to 300 years. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought. These are house structures. This was like a village site,” he added. For more on an ancient culture that occupied Ohio some 2,000 years ago, go to "Who Were the Hopewell?"

Maize Domestication Seen on a Molecular Level

MADISON, WISCONSIN—A genetic study of corn conducted by Huai Wang and John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers insight into the domestication of this crop in Mexico some 9,000 years ago. The seeds of the wild grass teosinte, the ancestor of modern corn, are protected by a hard casing. Over a period of a few thousand years, early farmers developed varieties in which the seed case turns into the cob, exposing the seed as a “naked kernel.” A series of experiments showed that only one mutation in the gene tga1, and the protein encoded by it, TGA1, is necessary to affect the structure of the seed case. “TGA1 acts a bit like an orchestra conductor coordinating the actions of many different musicians. The same orchestra can play in different ways, depending on the conductor’s signals,” Doebley said in a press release. “Humans completely reshaped the ancestor of corn, effectively turning the cob inside out. Our results show that a small genetic change has had a big effect on this remarkable transformation,” he said. For more, go to "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Viking Sword Discovered in Norway

OSLO, NORWAY—A sword from the late Viking Age has been discovered in a burial in Langeid, a village in southern Norway. “Although the iron blade has rusted, the handle is well preserved. It is wrapped with silver thread and the hilt and pommel at the top are covered in silver with details in gold, edged with a copper alloy thread,” project leader Zanette Glørstad said in a press release. Post holes in the four corners of the large grave once held a roof, and yielded charcoal dated to the year A.D. 1030, which coincides with coins found at the bottom of the grave. One of the coins, from England, was minted during the reign of Ethelred II, between 978 and 1016. A battle ax with a shaft coated with brass was also discovered in the same grave. Similar axes have been found in the River Thames in London, suggesting that the weapons in this burial might be linked to Viking battles along the Thames in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. “It’s quite possible that the dead man was one of King Canute’s hand-picked men for the battles with King Ethelred of England,” Glørstad added. To read more about the Viking era in England, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings."

Maya Pyramid at Tonina Is One of the Biggest

CHIAPAS, MEXICO— Australia reports that recent excavations at Tonina by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have shown the Maya city to be twice as large as predicted, with clearly defined districts, including areas of palaces, temples, housing, and administration. It had been thought that the Tonina acropolis had been built on a hill, but the excavations have shown that the mound covers a pyramid more than 240 feet tall, with 208 stone steps from its base to its apex. “It’s a big surprise to see that the pyramid was done almost entirely by the architects and therefore is more artificial than natural. This is because it was believed that almost every hill was a natural mound, but recent evidence has revealed that it was almost entirely built by the ancient inhabitants,” said Emiliano Gallaga, director of the site. More than 300 hieroglyphic texts have also been found. Some of them reveal the names of city rulers. The texts could eventually help scholars understand the decline of the ancient Maya civilization. To read in-depth about another ancinet Maya discovery, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."