NUNAVUT, CANADA—Parks Canada underwater archaeologists and Royal Canadian Navy divers will begin to map the wreckage of the HMS Erebus later this week, while ice cover protects the site from wave action. “Without the waves stirring up the seas, all the particulate settles down to the sea floor and it creates fairly ideal clarity conditions. It’s almost like diving in an aquarium,” Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archaeologist for Parks Canada, told CBC News. The clarity of the water will allow them to use a high-tech 3-D laser scanning tool to record the site in detail. The team members will drive holes in the ice cover, where they will be camping, to gain access to the ship. “We’ll go back with survey grade GPS mapping equipment and we’ll make sure we’re putting these holes precisely where we want them,” Harris said. A hole in the ice on the port side of the Erebus, one on the starboard side, and one near the stern are planned. Once accurate maps are made, the archaeological investigation can proceed. The Erebus was trapped in the ice in 1846 during Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition and eventually sank in an undisclosed location. The initial discovery of Erebus was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Science has reported on a new genetic study from the team that recently found at least three ancient populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers in the ancestry of modern Europeans. In work presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the team, led by population geneticist Iain Mathieson of the Harvard University lab of David Reich, explained how five genes associated with changes in diet and skin pigmentation underwent strong natural selection and spread rapidly throughout Europe in the past 8,000 years. The first farmers, in addition to the hunter-gatherers, could not digest milk sugars 8,000 years ago. Lactose tolerance became common among Europeans only about 4,300 years ago. The team also tracked three separate genes that produce light skin. The new data confirm that about 8,500 years ago, hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary had darker skin, but people from the Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light-skin gene variants some 7,700 years ago, and a third gene that causes blue eyes and may contribute to light skin and blonde hair. The first farmers from the Near East also carried both genes for light skin, which they shared with the hunter-gatherers of central and southern Europe. Genes for tallness were favored in northern and central Europeans beginning 8,000 years ago, while selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain. To read more about recent evolutionary history, see "Evolution Overdrive."
CARSON CITY, NEVADA—More than 1,000 stone tools were recovered during a survey of a section of the Utah Test and Training Range. The tools belong to the Haskett tradition, which is rarely found in the Great Basin region, including a complete spear head thought to be the largest Haskett point every found. Another weapon had traces of elephant proteins on it, making it the first likely evidence of mammoth hunting in the Great Basin. The oldest of the artifacts were made between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, when the desert was a wetland. “Haskett is very rare, anywhere. Like Clovis, it relates to the earliest folks. They were probably moving around with a sort of condensed tool kit, and I guess you could say they were low visibility. There weren’t many people around, and they didn’t leave much of a record. But we just got lucky here,” Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group told Western Digs. He thinks the points were probably lost in action, during a hunt. His team also discovered 19 sharp, double-sided tools called rectangular bifaces that were fashioned from broken Haskett stems. “These are artifacts that are not recognized in any of the other Paleoindian assemblages,” he said. To read in-depth about the first humans to reach North America, see "America, in the Beginning."
ROME, ITALY—A tiny piece of shoulder bone and stalactite fragments collected from Altamura Man have been tested by researchers led by Giorgio Manzi of the Sapienza University of Rome. The remains, discovered in 1993 by cave explorers, are embedded in the rock and have not been removed from the cave. Only the head and part of a shoulder are visible, and were thought to represent an archaic Neanderthal, which lived in Europe between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago. The new test results, publicized in Phys.org, support the identification of the individual as a Neanderthal who may have fallen in a natural well and gotten stuck. Uranium-thorium dating revealed that the calcite in the stalactite fragments was formed 172,000 to 130,000 years ago. DNA from the bone sample is thus the oldest ever recovered from Neanderthal remains. The next step is to try to sequence the DNA sample. For more on our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"
BEDALE, ENGLAND—A vast Roman villa with winged corridors is being excavated in North Yorkshire, at a site where a new bypass is being built. Pottery from the villa dates to the mid-third to fourth centuries A.D. Culture 24 reports that the villa was surrounded by a landscape of enclosures and field systems. Stones from its masonry walls were likely to have been reused by later builders, but the cobble foundations of the walls survive in deep trenches. The villa was eventually demolished, and in areas of the building, archaeologists from Prospect Archaeology have recovered pieces of its painted-plaster walls that had fallen on an intact concrete floor. There was also a pavilion-style room with an under-floor heating system. This room had wall tiles and painted wall plaster in many colors that may have been used for entertaining. Stone and tile roof tiles, iron nails, and small quantities of window glass have been recovered across the building. For a unique look at Roman life in the north of England, read "Artifact: A Roman Party Invitation."
HONOLULU, HAWAII—The Honolulu Museum of Art has handed seven artifacts thought to have been stolen from India over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we’ve had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don’t belong here,” museum director Stephan Jost told KITV.com. The seven artifacts are now part of a case against a New York art dealer accused of being part of an international antiquities smuggling operation. “It’s good to know we’re recovering this material and we’ll be able to send it back because a lot of this material left India, I think, before the government knew it was there,” said Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter. He added that the museum was “incredibly helpful” with the case. “The more light you shine on systems, the more you ruin their market and I’m more than happy to ruin their market,” museum director Jost said. To read in-depth about an extraordinary Iron Age site, see "India's Village of the Dead."
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Inspectors with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery found pickaxes and other clues left behind by looters in a cave in southern Israel. They also found a cache of 3,000-year-old Egyptian artifacts that the diggers missed, including intact pots; jewelry made of bronze, shells, and faience; oil lamps; amulets; alabaster jars; cosmetic vessels; and Egyptian scarab seals dating to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. “During this period, Canaan was ruled by Egypt,” Daphna Ben-Tor of the Israel Museum said in a statement released by the IAA and reported in Live Science. The names of the kings on the seals, such as Thutmose and Amenhotep, helped archaeologists to date the artifacts. To read more about the ancient Egyptian presence in Israel, see "Egyptian Style in Ancient Canaan."
SAQQARA, EGYPT—Two 6th Dynasty tombs have been discovered at the site of Tabit El-Geish, according to an announcement made by Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. Both tombs are painted with offering scenes. The first tomb belonged to a priest named Ankhti, the second to a priest named Sabi. Their skeletal remains had been scattered, suggesting that the tombs had been robbed and vandalized in antiquity. Alabaster jars, colored limestone offerings, and pottery were also found. Vassil Dobrev, director of the mission for the Institut Français d’archéologie Orientale, told the Luxor Times that the upper part of the tombs were built with mud brick and the burial chambers were cut out of the white limestone bedrock. To read in-depth about the discovery of another Egyptian funerary site, see "Tomb of the Chantress."
VIENNA, AUSTRIA—The complete skeleton of a camel dating to the Second Ottoman War of the seventeenth century was recovered during rescue excavations in the Lower Austrian city of Tulln. Genetic testing revealed that the camel was a male hybrid of a dromedary in the maternal line and a Bactrian camel in the paternal line. “The partly excavated skeleton was at first suspected to be a large horse or cattle,” archaeozoologist Alfred Galik said in a University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna press release. “But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel.” The Ottoman army often used hybrid camels for transportation because they were bigger and easier to handle than their pure-bred parents. Camels were also sometimes eaten, but this skeleton had not been butchered. Other artifacts from the excavation, including a medicine bottle from the “Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone” helped date the site. The camel “may have been acquired as part of an exchange. The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln. They probably didn’t know what to feed it or whether one could eat it. Perhaps it died a natural death and was then buried without being used,” Galik explained. To read about the effort to rescue an Ottoman-era site, see "Saving the Silver City."