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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, January 06

Mysterious Greek Coins Studied

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—For more than a century beginning around 540 B.C., the Greek cities of Southern Italy began minting so-called incuse coins, which show the same image on the front and back. Researchers have never been certain how the coins were manufactured, and with only a few dies used to make the coins surviving and with no contemporary accounts or illustrations, there is a dearth of information apart from the coins themselves. Now scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) are teaming up with scholars from the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatics (ACAN) to use neutron scattering, or the use of neutrons to characterize materials, to analyze some of the 1,267 incuse coins in ACAN's collection. "ANSTO's neutron scattering texture measurements will provide insight into the mechanical processes undertaken to create the coins," Kenneth Sheedy, Director of ACANS, said in an ANSTO news release. "Numismatists from ACANS will then infer the production steps undertaken to produce these coins using knowledge of ancient materials and equipment that were available at the time." To read about how coins can help change our understanding of history, see "Artifact: Silver Viking Coin." 

Did Easter Island Really Collapse?

EASTER ISLAND, CHILE—A new study contradicts the idea that the prehistoric Rapa Nui people of Easter Island suffered a demographic collapse brought on by poor environmental stewardship. Scholars had theorized that unchecked agricultural growth after the first settlers arrived around A.D. 1200 strained the island's fragile ecosystem to the breaking point, leading to the erosion of topsoil and the eventual death by starvation of many members of Rapa Nui society. But prehistoric demographics are notoriously difficult to determine with precision. Phys.org reports that an international research team has evaluated the claim that the population of Easter Island collapsed by studying how land was used at different times on the island. They dated obisidian farming tools from a variety of agricultural sites on the island using a method known as obsidian hydration and found that there were population shifts that correlated with changes in rainfall and soil quality. Some areas did lose population, but others gained in population over time. Overall, they were unable to find evidence for a dramatic population collapse, which happened only once Europeans reached the island in A.D. 1722 and islanders succumbed to diseases such as syphilis and smallpox. To read about the study of the decline of a prehistoric culture in the American Southwest, see "On the Trail of the Mimbres."  

Pharaonic Carving Discovered in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—A new epigraphic survey of the ancient sandstone quarries of Gebel el Sisila north of Aswan has revealed previously unrecorded inscriptions and rock art, reports the Cairo Post. Led by Lund University archaeologist Maria Nilsson, the team has found a rare depiction of two obelisks from the quarry being cut and loaded onto boats, as well as a small rock carved stela that shows a pharaoh making offerings to the gods Amun-Ra and Thoth, who are rarely portrayed together. A royal cartouche accompanying the stela is so poorly preserved that the team can not be sure which pharaoh is being depicted, but preliminary work suggests the stela dates to the late dynastic period, perhaps the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 B.C.) The Gebel el Silsila Survey has also thus far discovered more than 60 rock art sites on both sides of the Nile that date from the Epipalaeolithic (ca. 8500 to 6500 years ago), to the Early Dynastic (ca. 3100-2686 B.C.) periods. To read about epigraphic work at a later necropolis on the Nile, see "Minature Pyramids of Sudan."

Rare Australian Spearpoints Dated

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Superbly crafted serrated spearpoints from the northwest Kimberly region are widely regarded as the pinnacle of prehistoric stone working technology in Australia. But because they are rarely found in ancient sites, doubts have persisted about their antiquity. Now Australian National University archaeologist Tim Maloney has radiocarbon dated charcoal from three sites where the points were discovered and shown that they first appeared around 1,000 years ago, a time when the population of the region was growing and new rock art styles were emerging. According to Maloney, it's still difficult to say just how common the spearpoints were, but it's clear that they would have been highly regarded, prized possessions. “The sort of skill required for Kimberley points, I think, is one that really involves several years of apprenticeship,” Maloney told ScienceNetwork Western Australia. “Perhaps only a small group of individuals were even able to produce them.” To read more about the debate over the age of Kimberly spearheads, see "What's the Point?

Monday, January 05

Tomb of Osiris Unearthed in Egypt

LUXOR, EGYPT—A team of Spanish and Italian Egyptologists has unearthed a tomb complex on the West Bank of the Nile opposite the modern city of Luxor that features a chapel with a statue of the god Osiris. According to an announcement published by the Luxor Times, the team believes the unusual architecture of the tomb, which probably dates to sometime between 760 and 525 B.C. shows that like the Osirion complex in Abydos, it was modeled on the mythical tomb of Osiris, and was intended to celebrate that god's mysteries. Below the Osiris statue the team found the tomb's burial chamber, and a nearby room was decorated with reliefs depicting demons and deities holding knives and meant to stand guard over the body of the tomb's occupant. To read about another recent discovery in the same vicinity, see "Sarcophagus of a Singer of the God Amun Found in Luxor." 

Palindrome Amulet Unearthed in Cyprus

KRAKOW, POLAND—Polish archaeologists working at the site of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have discovered a 1,500-year-old amulet containing an inscription that reads the same backwards as forwards, making it a palindrome. Livescience reports that on one side of the amulet are crude carvings depicting the Egyptian god Osiris lying on a boat, as well as Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence. On the reverse, a 59-letter inscription reads "[a god] is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine." Amulets depicting gods were long used as good-luck talismans in the ancient world, but at the time this one was made, Cyprus was part of the Eastern Roman Empire and Christianity was the official religion. Both the iconography and inscription show that people persisted in practicing traditional religions into the Christian era and that Christianity overlapped with pagan beliefs for some time. But the amulet also demonstrates that familiarity with traditional beliefs may have been fading by the time it was made. For instance, while the artisan who made the amulet correctly depicted Osiris as mummified, they also chose to show Harpocrates covered with bandages, which is incorrect. This suggests the artisan may not have fully understood the religious iconography being depicted. To read more about the site, see "Large Buildings Discovered at Nea Paphos."

Temple Walls Possibly Felled by Earthquake

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Archaeologists have long assumed that a large pile of stones lying next to the south end of the Western Wall fell to the street after Roman soldiers destroyed the Holy Temple during the great revolt in A.D. 70. But now archaeologist Shimon Gibson has put forward a controversial theory that the walls did not fall during the sacking of the temple, but stood until an earthquake in A.D. 363 toppled them, leaving the heap of stones visible today. Gibson doubts that Roman soldiers would have bothered to destroy the walls in what would have been a challenging engineering operation. He also notes that in the late Roman period, Jerusalem was a vibrant city with a large, prosperous population and that it's unlikely the debris would have been left untouched and not recycled for new buildings. “Now we know much more about the late Roman period,” Gibson told Haaretz. “If there was a neighborhood like this there, how could it be that they leave debris from the year 70 C.E. in the middle of it all? It’s like going out of your house and leaving a pile of debris. You clear it. And why leave the city to bring stones to build new buildings if you have stones next to your house?” Other archaeologists strongly disagree with Gibson, and point to stratigraphic evidence that the stones have been at their present location since the first century A.D. To read more about archaeology in Jerusalem, see "The Walls of Mount Zion." 

Unknown Queen's Tomb Discovered in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—The BBC reports that archaeologists led by the Czech Institute of Egyptology's Miroslav Bárta have uncovered the tomb of a previously unknown queen at Abusir, the necropolis of the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis. Inscriptions on the tomb's walls indicate it was occupied by Queen Khentakawess, and its close proximity to the pyramid of the Pharaoh Neferefre, a Fifth Dynasty king who ruled briefly around 2460-2458 B.C., led the team to hypothesize she was probably Neferefre's wife and the mother of his successor. In addition to the inscriptions, the team discovered 23 limestone pots and four copper tools. To read about an earlier discovery of an Old Kingdom tomb made by the Czech team, see "The Doctor Is In."

Friday, January 02

European Battlefields from World War II Surveyed

MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO—David Passmore of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and his colleagues surveyed key World War II battlegrounds in Europe from June 1944 through February 1945. They focused on parts of northwestern France; the Ardennes forests of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany; the Hürtgenwald and Reichswald forests of western Germany; and the woodlands of the Arnhem region of the Netherlands. The team found evidence of bomb craters, foxholes, trenches, and German logistics depots. “These things [could] illuminate war diaries and accounts of battlefield history, and provide a far more accurate impression of where troops were fighting, how they were fighting, and so on," Passmore told Live Science. He and his team are now investigating what the Allies knew about those German depots. The archaeological evidence may allow Passmore to determine how successful the Allied bombings were. For more on the study of battlefields of this era, see "Archaeology of World War II."

Large Hoard of Anglo-Saxon Coins Unearthed

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, ENGLAND—Members of a metal detecting club discovered a lead bucket filled with more than 5,000 silver Anglo-Saxon coins late last month. The coins, which feature the faces of Anglo-Saxon kings, including Ethelred the Unready and Canute, had been covered with two feet of earth. “They’re like mirrors, no scratching, and buried really carefully in a lead container, deep down. It looks like only two people have handled these coins. The person who made them and the person who buried them,” club leader Pete Welch told the Daily Record. Archaeologist Ros Tyrrell was called in to help excavate the 1,000-year-old coins. “When the coins have been properly identified and dated, we may be able to guess at why such a great treasure was buried,” added a spokesman from Bucks County Museum. To read about an early Anglo-Saxon kingdom, see "The Kings of Kent."

Siberia’s Spaso-Zashiverskaya

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—Spaso-Zashiverskaya, originally built in 1700 in the town of Zashiversk, was a center for the Christianization of the people who lived near Siberia’s Indigirka River. The town was an administrative and trade center until 1803, when the fur trade declined. A smallpox outbreak in 1840 killed all but one of the town’s remaining settlers. In the 1940s, the top of the church’s belfry collapsed, but archaeologist Alexey Okladnikov described the church in 1969 as a “splendor,” according to The Siberian Times. The timber church was disassembled in 1971, and stored until the late 1980s, when it was reassembled at an open-air museum at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk.