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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, July 05

Polynesian Stone Tools "Fingerprinted"

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland and colleagues analyzed the age and geological source of stone adzes discovered in the Tangatatau rock shelter on Mangaia Island. Adzes, used in Polynesian societies to clear land for farming and to build houses, canoes, and bowls, would have been necessary tools for colonizing new lands. The researchers found that the material for making the tools may have come from as far away as the Austral Islands, American Samoa, and the northern Marquesas. This trade contact, over as much as 1,500 miles, is thought to have lasted from A.D. 1300 to the 1600s. “The colonization of Oceania is the greatest maritime migration in human history and Polynesians were really at the top of the game of voyaging and return voyaging and ... bringing all the necessary items to settle and found a new colony,” Weisler told ABC News Australia. He thinks perishable items and marriage partners, goods not left in the archaeological record, may have also made the journey. For more, go to "Canoe & Climate Shed Light on Polynesian Sailing Technology."

Nineteenth-Century Hotel Excavated in Australia

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Excavation of the site of the Mistletoe Hotel, which opened in Melbourne in 1855 during a Gold Rush, has recovered some 250,000 artifacts. The colorful hotel had a long history and provided a pub, livery stables, and a meeting space to immigrants landing in the city. “The excavation has uncovered a variety of items—some not seen before—reflecting an explosion of wealth coming into Melbourne and providing a really dynamic picture of the hotel’s past,” Jeremy Smith of Heritage Victoria told the Herald Sun. The artifacts include a gold stick pin and other jewelry; silver coins; beer, wine, champagne, cognac, gin, and rum bottles; a handgun; a jar lid for “Highly Scented Russian Bear’s Grease;” ceramic figurines; utensils; pipes; and a rising sun hat pin badge from the Australian Commonwealth Military Services. An apartment building will be constructed on the site, which had been covered and protected with a parking lot. For more, go to "Rogues' Gallery: The Convicts of Early Australia."

How Old is Homo Naledi?

BURNABY, CANADA—While scientists continue to wait for a geological date for Homo naledi, Mana Dembo of Simon Fraser University and her colleagues estimate that the hominid, which had humanlike hands, feet, and teeth, lived some 912,000 years ago. According to Science News, Dembo and her team compared skull and tooth measurements of Homo naledi to the rate of change of skull and tooth features in hominids with known geological dates. She noted that the ages calculated for other hominids were close to dates obtained through the dating of fossils and sediments, but that in a few cases, the estimates were off by 800,000 years or more. Based upon skeletal similarities to Homo erectus, it had been thought that the newly discovered species, discovered in a remote underground cave in South Africa, lived between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago. Dembo adds that further analysis of measurements of limb and trunk bones could help clarify how Homo naledi fits into the evolutionary tree. For more on Homo naledi, go to "A New Human Relative."

Friday, July 01

British Anatomists Placed High Value on Child Corpses

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—British anatomists made greater use of the remains of infants and stillborn or miscarried fetuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than had been previously thought, according to a report in Live Science. The corpses most readily available to anatomists, those of criminals and the very poor, tended to be of adult men, which meant that younger corpses were more highly valued. Researchers have looked at a University of Cambridge collection including 54 infant and fetus specimens dating from 1768 to 1913 and concluded that cadavers of the young were more likely to be kept as part of medical collections than those of adults. Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, notes that special care was taken when preparing infant and fetal bodies and that researchers learned much about how the body develops through studying them. “They could see for the first time how the bones grow at different ages,” he said. Many of the infant bodies appear to have come from workhouses and poorhouses, while others may have come from illegitimate births, which were highly stigmatized, leading to instances of infanticide. For more on the study of cadavers, go to "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

How Carthage Kept Charioteers Cool

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA—Haaretz reports that archaeologists digging at the site of the Roman-era Circus of Carthage have discovered a water system that was used to cool down charioteers and horses during races. Excavations led by Tunisia’s National Heritage Institute and the German Archaeological Institute have revealed water-resistant mortar at the median strip of the circus, suggesting water basins were placed there. It’s likely that circus workers would have dipped amphoras into the basins and then sprinkled water on passing horses and chariots. Similar basins have been found at a circus outside of Rome and they are depicted on a mosaic from Carthage that shows the circus. The team also has two other sections of the site under excavation, at the spectators section and at an older Punic-era building that was torn down to accommodate the circus. To read more about chariot racing in antiquity, go to “Artifact: Statuete of an Auriga (Charioteer).”

Possible Remains of the Buddha Found in China

NANJING, CHINA—A skull bone that may have belonged to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was discovered in China hidden inside a model of a stupa, or Buddhist shrine used for meditation. A report in Live Science explains that the 1,000-year-old model, which measures around 4 feet by 1.5 feet, was found inside a stone chest in a crypt under the Grand Bao’en Temple in Nanjing. Inscriptions engraved on the chest explain that it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (r. A.D. 997-1022) during the Song Dynasty. An inscription found inside the chest explains that after the Buddha entered paranirvana, breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, his remains were divided into 84,000 shares, of which 19 were sent to China. These included the skull bone, which was found inside a gold casket, which was itself inside a silver casket. The archaeologists who made the discovery are agnostic as to whether the bone actually belonged to the Buddha. Buddhist monks have since buried the bone in another temple. For more, go to “Buddhism, in the Beginning.”

Medieval Burials Unearthed in Wales

PEMBROKSHIRE, WALES—Excavations at an early medieval chapel graveyard on a beach in southwest Wales have revealed Christian burials dating to the early sixth century, making them contemporaries of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. BBC News reports that analysis of skeletons found at similar sites in the region shows that some belonged to people who were not local to the area, but had been born in continental Europe and Ireland. Initial results of the recently discovered remains suggests similar diversity in the group. The Dyfed Archaeological trust is conducting the excavation of the cemetery because the burials are at risk of being washed out to sea. For more on archaeology in Wales, go to "Hillforts of the Iron Age."

Thursday, June 30

Viking Castle Update From Denmark

KØGE, DENMARK—Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen thinks that a fire was deliberately set 1,000 years ago at the Viking castle Vallø Borgring, and has requested the assistance of police dogs and a fire safety investigator. “The outer posts of the east gate are completely charred, and there are signs of burning on the inside,” he told The Copenhagen Post. The unfinished structure, built on a man-made plateau, is one of five known ring fortresses in Denmark, and is thought to have been the last one built by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. “Our theory right now is that other powerful men in the country attacked the castle and set fire to the gates,” Ulriksen added. For more, go to "Bluetooth's Fortress."

Medieval Manor Excavated in Southwest England

DEVON, ENGLAND—A medieval manor known as North Hall is being excavated in the village of Widecombe in southwest England. A ditch at the edge of the site is thought to have been a moat that was coupled with an earthwork to defend the house. “We think it was attacked at least twice in the Middle Ages by brigands on the moor,” Mike Nendick, Dartmoor National Park spokesperson, told The Plymouth Herald. The team of archaeologists and volunteers has also recovered cobbles, a section of wall, flag stones, pottery, post holes, palisades, and wooden beam slots. “The people who lived here would have been powerful as it would have been a really high-status site,” he explained. For more, go to "The Many Lives of an English Manor House."

Did Megalithic Tombs Double as Telescopes?

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, prehistoric peoples living in what is now Western Europe may have built megalithic tombs as tools for observing the night sky and tracking the movements of the stars. “Different regions had their own traditions and architectural styles, but they are all variations on a theme,” said Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. Spending the night inside these structures may have been part of a rite of passage that included watching the sky at dusk and dawn. In particular, passage graves, which have a large chamber accessed through a long, narrow entry tunnel, may have helped early astronomers see faint stars on the horizon. “The entrance creates an aperture as large as ten degrees through which your naked-eye view is restricted,” Brown said. Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David added that knowing the positions of the stars at specific times of the year may have helped people time seasonal migrations. For more, go to "An Eye on Venus."

Fireplaces Suggest Modern Humans Occupied Hobbits’ Cave

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA—Scientists have found evidence of fireplaces that were in use between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago in Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores. The cave is known as the site where the remains of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive hominin dubbed the “hobbit,” were discovered in 2003. It had been thought that Homo floresiensis died out around 12,000 years ago, but recent research suggests that the species may have gone extinct some 50,000 years ago. “This new evidence for fire at the site fits in with the chronology of modern humans moving through Southeast Asia and into Australia around 50,000 years ago,” Mike Morely of the University of Wollongong told The Australian. No evidence of the use of fire by Homo floresiensis over a period of about 130,000 years has been found in the cave, so scientists think the hearths were made by modern humans. “The gap’s narrowing between the two populations,” Morely explained. “We’ve got them in the same place and we’ve got less than 10,000 years between them.” If the two species did come in contact, it could help explain the demise of Homo floresiensis. For more, go to "New Flores Fossils May Be Hobbit Ancestors."