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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 15

Vasco da Gama Shipwreck Discovered Near Oman

MUSCAT, OMAN—One of Vasco da Gama’s ships has been identified in the waters off the coast of Al Hallaniyah Island. The nau Esmeralda, a Portuguese East Indiaman, was commanded by Vicente Sodré, Vasco da Gama’s uncle, and was part of the Armada to India. It sank in 1503. More than 2,800 artifacts have been recovered, including a copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the personal emblem of King Dom Manuel I; a bronze bell with an inscription that suggests the ship was built in 1498; gold cruzado coins minted in Lisbon between 1494 and 1501; and an Indio, an extremely rare silver coin commissioned by Dom Manuel in 1499 specifically for trade with India. Most of the artifacts are lead, iron, and stone shot; bronze breech chambers, and firearms. “This project differs from the majority of maritime archaeology projects in that we set out to specifically find the wreck site of the Sodré ships, using a survivor’s and other historical accounts, because of their very early age and the potential they held for new discoveries,” project director David L. Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries said in a press release. To read more about nautical archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Evidence of Corn Beer Found in the Greater Southwest

PROVO, UTAH—Anne Katzenberg of the University of Calgary is examining the remains of people who lived at Casas Grandes, a trade center located in what is now the Mexican state of Chihuahua. As part of the study, graduate student Daniel King of Brigham Young University has analyzed dental calculus on the teeth of 110 people who were buried in the ancient city or in the Casas Grandes River Valley between A.D. 700 and 1450. Fermented starch granules were found on teeth dating from the site’s Medio Period, about 1200 to 1450. “The results of this study offer some of the first hard evidence for the production of corn beer, consumption of corn smut, and food processing methods” in the Greater Southwest, he told Western Digs. But the use of corn beer, or chicha, has been recorded in Central and South America as long as 5,000 years ago. “Turning maize into beer during the Medio period, however, could suggest an influx of new ideas—or perhaps even people—during that time, which might indicate outside influence—either foreigners coming to Casas Grandes, or locals traveling and coming back with new ideas,” King explained. To read in-depth about another ancient Southwestern culture, go to "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

Historic Limestone Blocks Surface at Nebraska’s Capitol

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA—Workers installing fountains in the northwest courtyard of the Capitol building in Lincoln uncovered blocks of limestone that were probably part of the façade of the city’s previous capitol building. “Most people don’t even know what the previous building looked like, so to be able to put your hands on it is kind of fun,” Matt Hansen, Capitol Commission architect, told the Lincoln Journal Star. Lincoln’s first Capitol building was constructed in 1867, but its stone soon crumbled, and construction on the second building began in 1881. Upon its completion in 1888, a crack was found in the south wall of the east wing, and the building soon proved to be too small. In 1915, construction of the present building began around the second one, which was eventually torn down. Only one of its limestone blocks had been saved. The newly unearthed blocks will be kept in the Capitol Commission’s masonry shop. To read in-depth about historical archaeology in the United States, go to "Letter From Philadelphia: City Garden."

Scientists Study Nuclear DNA From Sima de los Huesos Fossils

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—An international team of researchers has analyzed nuclear DNA obtained from 430,000-year-old bones from the Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones” in northern Spain. Recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bones indicated that these Middle Pleistocene hominins were distantly related to the Denisovans, who lived in Asia, despite their Neanderthal-derived features. But the information gleaned from the short fragments of nuclear DNA suggests that the Sima de los Huesos hominins were more closely related to Neanderthals than Denisovans after all. “We have hoped for many years that advances in molecular analysis techniques would one day aid our investigation of this unique assembly of fossils,” Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University in Madrid said in a press release. The findings also suggest that Denisovans and Neanderthals had already diverged by the Middle Pleistocene. Neanderthals living in the Late Pleistocene may have acquired their mitochondrial DNA through gene flow from Africa. “These results provide important anchor points in the timeline of human evolution. They are consistent with a rather early divergence of 550,000 to 750,000 years ago of the modern human lineage from archaic humans,” added Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. To read more about the bones found at Sima de los Huesos, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."

Monday, March 14

Rare Roman Gold Coin Discovered in Israel

JERUSALEM—A hiker in eastern Galilee discovered an ancient gold coin in the grass at an archaeological site and alerted officials at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “This coin, minted in Rome in A.D. 107, is rare on a global level. On the reverse we have the symbols of the Roman legions next to the name of the ruler Trajan, and on the obverse—instead of an image of the emperor Trajan, as was usually the case, there is the portrait of the emperor ‘Augustus Deified.’ This coin is part of a series of coins minted by Trajan as a tribute to the emperors that preceded him,” Danny Syon, senior numismatist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a press release. The only other known coin like this one is housed in the British Museum. To read about Roman coins found in Britain, go to "Seaton Down Hoard," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Neanderthals Ate Large Plant Eaters and Vegetarian Foods

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Analysis of individual amino acids in collagen from an array of bones found at two sites in Belgium suggests that the Neanderthals' diet differed from that of other predators. “Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors. However, our results show that all predators occupy a very specific niche, preferring smaller prey as a rule, such as reindeer, wild horses, or steppe bison, while the Neanderthals primarily specialized on the large plant-eaters such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses,” Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen explained in a press release. The study also revealed that about 20 percent of the Neanderthal diet came from vegetarian sources. “We are accumulating more and more evidence that diet was not a decisive factor in why the Neanderthals had to make room for modern humans,” he added. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."

Satellites Could Help Underwater Archaeologists Find Shipwrecks

GREENBELT, MARYLAND—Matthias Baeye and Michael Fettweis of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Rory Quinn of Ulster University, and Samuel Deleu of Flemish Hydrography, Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services, have developed a low-cost way to detect shipwrecks close to shore, according to a press release from NASA. They used freely available Landsat satellite data and tidal models to follow sediment plumes extending from four known wreck locations near the Belgium port of Zeebrugge. Those wrecks had been recorded in a detailed multibeam echosounder survey conducted by the Flemish government. They found that exposed parts of two of the shipwrecks collected sediments during slack tides. The sediments were then re-suspended during ebb and flood tides, creating sediment plumes that could be traced when they reached the surface. The researchers suggest that uncharted shipwrecks could be found by mapping sediment plumes and following them upstream to their point of origin. For more, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks..."

Stolen Ancient Statues From India Recovered

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Operation Hidden Idol, a partnership between the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations New York, has seized two statues from Christie’s auction house. Special agents determined that the two statues were stolen from India and transported to the U.S. by organized crime syndicates. The first is described as a tenth-century sandstone stele of Rishabhanata. It depicts the first Jain Tirthankara in a seated pose, flanked by a pair of standing attendants. The second carving has been dated to the eighth century and depicts the equestrian deity Revanta and his entourage. A piece of this statue is said to have been broken off and sold separately by the smugglers. “With high demand from all corners of the globe, collectors must be certain of provenance before purchasing. I urge dealers and auction houses to take every necessary precaution to avoid facilitating the sale of cultural heritage stolen from other civilizations. If a provenance is in doubt, report it to law enforcement authorities,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. said in a press release. To read about preservation efforts in India, go to "Living Heritage at Risk."

Friday, March 11

Massive Bronze Workshop Found Near Angkor Thom

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—A large bronze workshop discovered next to the ancient royal palace of Angkor Thom may establish where large sculptures found in the area were produced. The significance of the site was recognized in 2012, and the first comprehensive report on it has now been published. The workshop was discovered by chance when archaeologists were excavating what they thought was a stone workshop. They found partially finished bronze sculptures, large furnaces, metal fragments, and crucibles that could hold a half-gallon of molten bronze. Radiocarbon dating has found that the workshop was in use from the eleventh to twelfth century, the height of Angkor civilization under King Jayavarman VII. “We’ve demonstrated that there is a centralized workshop with very large-scale production,” Martin Polkinghorne of Flinders University told The Phnom Penh Post. The discovery of the large-scale workshop overturns the assumption that bronze sculptures were created in the same locations where they were displayed. In addition, the fact that the workshop is so close to Angkor Thom suggests it was overseen by elites. For more, go to “Remapping the Khmer Empire,” one of ARCHAEOLOGY’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2013.

Hemp Helped Preserve Ancient Sites in India

  AURANGABAD, INDIA—A new study shows that the rock-cut temples of India’s Ellora Caves have been preserved in part because of the special properties of a clay plaster covering the interior of the shrines. Botanist Milind M. Sardesai and archaeochemist Rajdeo Singh used a scanning electron microscope to study plaster from the walls and ceiling of a Buddhist temple at the site dating to the sixth century A.D. They discovered that the mixture consisted of at least ten percent cannabis. "The cannabis fiber appears to have a better quality and durability than other fibers," Sardesai told Discovery News. “Moreover, the cannabis’ gum and sticky properties might have helped clay and lime to form a firm binder.” According to the researchers, the cannabis plaster was also insect-resistant and helped regulate humidity in the cave. Nearby cave temples that weren't insulated with cannabis plaster are in a poorer state of preservation than the Ellora Cave shrines. To see images of another spectacular site in India, go to “The Islamic Stepwells of Gujarat."

New Piece of Ancient Roman Map Located

ROME, ITALY—A newly discovered fragment of a marble map of ancient Rome has been joined with the other existing pieces, according to Discovery News. The map, which originally measured 60 by 43 feet, is known as the Severan Marble Plan and was carved into 150 marble slabs between A.D. 203 and 211. When complete, the map featured every building and street in Rome, but the 1,200 or so fragments that remain cover just 10 percent of its original surface area. The map originally hung on a wall that survives today and is lined with holes where the slabs were once attached with bronze clamps. The new fragment was discovered in the Maffei Marescotti Palace and is thought to have been used in its construction at the end of the sixteenth century. The piece connects to a large section discovered in 1562 and completes the word “Circus Flaminius,” a sporting complex that was built in 220 B.C. to host the Plebeian games. To read about ancient Rome in-depth, go to “Rome's Imperial Port.”

Medieval Reliquary Discovered in Bulgaria

DOBROMIRTSI, BULGARIA—A small medieval reliquary has been discovered during a preliminary survey of the ruins of a medieval monastery near Bulgaria’s border with Greece, reports Archaeology in Bulgaria. Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia discovered the artifact, which may have contained relics attributed to a Christian saint. He also found the arm of a bronze cross decorated with the image of the Virgin Mary, and believes both objects date to to around the eleventh century A.D. Ovcharov was also able to confirm reports of looting at the site when he identified freshly dug pits near the monastery’s surviving walls. He plans to begin scientific excavations at the site in May. To read in-depth about the archaeology of medieval churches in England, go to “Writing on the Church Wall.”