Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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."

Wednesday, June 01

World War I–Era Training Camp Excavated in Ohio

CHILLICOTHE, OHIO—The Chillicothe Gazette reports that archaeologist Andy Sewell, members of the Ohio History Connection, and additional volunteers are investigating Camp Sherman, a large World War I–era training site for the Ohio Army National Guard, ahead of the construction of a power distribution center. The team has uncovered sewer pipes and the foundations of several buildings, including one they think might have been a fire station. “Surprises have been finding parts of buildings that don’t match the maps,” Sewell said. “Mainly, the buildings are where they are supposed to be, but there’s a mess hall, for instance, that’s further to the west than it shows on the map, and it kind of matches up with some of the photos that show it in line with another mess hall,” he said. Footprints in the bakery’s concrete could also reflect how quickly the camp was constructed. Charred pages from a ledger, a broken bottle, the base of a toilet, food waste, and burned soil where the bakery ovens may have been located have also been found. To read about the World War I battlefield at Gallipoli, go to "Letter from Turkey: Anzac's Next Chapter." 

Blade of Ancient Egyptian Dagger Analyzed

MILAN, ITALY—Daniela Comelli of the Polytechnic University of Milan and her team conducted an analysis of the dagger found in the wrappings of Tutankhamun’s mummy by Howard Carter in 1925. The dagger, which dates to the fourteenth century B.C., has a gold handle, a rock crystal pommel, a gold sheath, and an iron blade. But the ancient Egyptians are thought to have developed iron smelting much later, in the eighth century B.C. “The problem is iron working is related to its high melting point,” Comelli said in an Associated Press report. “Because of it, early smiths couldn’t heat ore enough to extract iron and couldn’t forge the iron into weapons.” Using a technique called X-ray fluorescence, Comelli found that Tutankhamun’s metal blade contains ten percent nickel and 0.6 percent cobalt, a composition that is similar to that of known metallic meteorites. The analysis suggests that the dagger could have been hammered from rare meteoritic iron, which is thought to have been considered more valuable than gold. For more, go to "Egypt’s Immigrant Elite."

Texts From the Early Years of Roman Rule Found in London

LONDON, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of the new European Bloomberg headquarters have yielded 405 Roman writing tablets, 87 of which have been deciphered. According to a report in BBC News, this more than quadruples the number of known Roman writing tablets recovered in London. Romans would have used styluses to write on a layer of blackened beeswax covering such wooden tablets. The wax did not survive on these tablets, but some of the etchings went through the wax to mark the wood, which was preserved for nearly 2,000 years in the mud of the buried Walbrook River. Roger Tomlin, an expert in cursive Latin, deciphered and interpreted the writings with the help of digital photographic methods. The texts include the earliest-known reference to London, an alphabet thought to have been written as practice or to demonstrate literacy, and a financial document dated January 8, A.D. 57. Researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology say it is the earliest intrinsically dated document to have been found in the United Kingdom. For more on this site, go to "Roman London Underground."

Tuesday, May 31

An Update from Virginia’s James Fort

JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA—The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reports that archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project are excavating the well found within the cellar that had been built by the colonists just outside the perimeter of the original James Fort structure. The team expected the well to have been filled with trash, like other old, brackish wells at James Fort. This well, however, was filled with clay. Senior staff archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson thinks that when the colonists expanded the cellar after the winter of 1609-1610, they put the clay they dug up into the well. Because the well had been located inside and down a flight of stairs, it may have been an inconvenient trash pit. “An absence of artifacts is actually a key part of the story,” added senior staff archaeologist Danny Schmidt. The bottom layer of the well may hold artifacts from the time when the well was in use. For more, go to "Jamestown’s VIPs," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top Ten Discoveries of 2015.

Iron-Age Remains Found on Isle of Wight

ISLE OF WIGHT, ENGLAND—Last year, two brothers discovered a set of human remains in the silt on Fishbourne Beach at low tide. The skeleton was lying on its left-hand side with its arms against its chest and legs bent. No clothing or other objects were found. According to On the Wight, local officials decided to recover as many of the bones as possible before the tide came in. A postmortem conducted by pathologist Basil Purdue concluded that the bones were ancient and belonged to a woman whose upper left arm bone and left collarbone were shorter than those on the right side of her body. She may have had a congenital deformity, or perhaps had suffered from a stroke that caused muscle wasting in the years before her death. Radiocarbon dating revealed the remains were nearly 2,000 years old. Barrister Caroline Sumeray explained that the remains will be housed at the Isle of Wight Museum. “They will be appropriately and ethically stored and recorded as per national guidelines for the treatment of human remains,” she said. To read about other finds from the same period, go to "Letter from Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age."

Traces of England’s Industrial Past Unearthed in Devon

DEVON, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Exeter Express and Echo, the Stover Canal, completed in 1794, was used to transport ball clay for making pottery from pits in the Bovey Basin to the port at Teignmouth for distribution. For the first time, a team of volunteers led by archaeologist Phil Newman of the Stover Canal Trust has excavated the remains of a 200-year-old canal barge at Ventiford Basin, in an upper section of the canal. By 1820, the canal was also used to transport granite from local quarries to the docks. Part of the journey was conducted on an unusual tramway made of granite blocks. Archaeologists have uncovered a section of the tramway, measuring more than 87 yards long, near the canal. “Although long and impressive sections of the tramroad survive in situ within Dartmoor National Park, until now it had been believed that the track was lost completely between Bovey Tracey and the head of the canal,” Newman said. “However, this amazing find, which represents three sidings off the main route, provides the only significant surviving section outside the national park.” To read about another find in the same area, go to "Seaton Down Hoard," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Ancient Crops Offer Clues to Colonization of Madagascar

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—Linguistic and genetic evidence has hinted that migrants from Southeast Asia could be among the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Madagascar. Now Science reports that Austronesians may have settled in Madagascar between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago. Led by archaeologist Alison Crowther of the University of Queensland, an international team of scientists collected more than 2,400 ancient crop samples from 20 archaeological sites on the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar, and the Comoro Islands, which are situated between Madagascar and the African coast. Radiocarbon dates of the charred seeds indicate that between A.D. 700 and 1200, crops such as pearl millet, cowpea, and sorghum were grown on the coast of East Africa, where Asian crops such as rice, mung bean, and cotton were rare. But the Asian crops were common on the Comoros Islands and on Madagascar. And although rice and mung bean were grown in India at the time, other common Indian crops were not found in Madagascar and the other islands. “We finally have a signal of this Austronesian expansion,” said Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. To read about an island 300 miles east of Madagascar, go to "Castaways."