Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, October 13

Ancient Footprints Studied in Tanzania

ENGARE SERO, TANZANIA—The Washington Post reports that Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce of Appalachian State University led a team of researchers in the study of some 400 ancient Homo sapiens footprints that were discovered in northern Tanzania, near the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, about 10 years ago. The footprints are thought to have been made by men, women, and children in flood deposits that dried and then were covered with another layer of mud. Minerals in the footprint layers were dated to between 19,000 and 10,000 years ago with the argon-argon dating technique. Once the excavation team exposed the footprints, each one was photographed, 3-D scanned, and mapped. The researchers have found evidence of at least 24 individuals who crossed the mud in two directions. Some of the travelers were walking, and some may have been jogging. A subgroup of the researchers continues to investigate the size and composition of the group that left the footprints. “For people who work in prehistory, it’s incredibly rare to get that kind of snapshot in time,” said paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner of the National Museum of Natural History. For more on ancient footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”

Roman Settlement Uncovered in Rugby, England

RUGBY, ENGLAND—The Rugby Observer reports that an archaeological investigation ahead of the construction of a housing development in England’s West Midlands unearthed a 2,000-year-old Roman settlement, a well, and kilns where pottery was produced. They also found a waterlogged pit alignment dating to the late Bronze Age, between 1000 and 500 B.C. Samples from the pit will be tested for information about the local landscape, forest clearance, and agriculture. To read about other discoveries in this area, go to “They're Just Like Us.”

Australia’s Early Astronomers

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—ABC News Australia reports that the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in southeast Australia may have been used to track the movements of the sun some 11,000 years ago by early farmers, who, according to Duane Hamacher of Monash University, had a complex understanding of astronomy and the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars throughout the year. Traces of villages and evidence of farming terraces and eel traps have been found near the stone circle and a water source. “If you’re going to have a stone arrangement where you mark off the seasons throughout the year with the solstices and equinoxes, it kind of makes sense if you’re at least most of the year in one specific location to do that,” said custodian Reg Abrahams. He added that people may have navigated by the stars and traveled at night to avoid the heat of the day. Plans are being made for archaeological investigation and dating of the site. For more on ancient astronomy, go to “An Eye on Venus.”

Wednesday, October 12

Cameras Catch Chimpanzees Teaching Tool Use

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Laboratory Equipment reports that anthropologists led by Stephanie Musgrave of Washington University in St. Louis used video cameras equipped with infrared sensors to document wild mother chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo teaching their young to use tools to gather food. The cameras allowed the researchers to observe the wild chimpanzees without disrupting them or exposing them to disease. The extensive footage revealed that the mothers chose specific branches to make brush-tipped probes to poke holes in termite mounds and collect the insects, then gave the tools to their offspring when asked. “By sharing tools, mothers may teach their offspring the appropriate material and form for manufacturing fishing probes,” said Musgrave. The scientists note that just as different groups of chimpanzees use different tools, their teaching and learning styles may also be customized. Musgrave also explained that such studies could help us to understand the origins of human culture and technology and how early humans transferred knowledge to the next generation. For more, go to Ancient Chimpanzee Tool Use.

Live Civil War Ordnance Uncovered by Hurricane Matthew

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—Live Science reports that a pile of 16 Civil War–era cannonballs was discovered on Folly Island by a beach walker the day after the winds and waves of Hurricane Matthew attacked the shoreline. Although the cannonballs were heavily corroded, a cylindrical notch where a timed fuse would have been placed was still visible on one of them. “Initially, the city wished to display them,” said Andrew Gilreath, Folly Beach's director of public safety. “However, they were inspected and a large number of them were [found to be] explosive cannonballs, and thus contained old and very unstable gunpowder.” Local officials and the U.S. Air Force Explosive Team destroyed most of the cannonballs. The remaining examples were taken to the nearby Navy base. For more, go to “A Civil War POW Camp in Watercolor.”

Tuesday, October 11

Mud-Brick Study Illuminates Fire at Tel Megiddo

REHOVOT, ISRAEL—According to a report in Live Science, Ruth Shahack-Gross and Mathilde Forget suggest that it may have only taken two to three hours for fire to have destroyed the entire city of Tel Megiddo some 3,000 years ago. A previous study found that mud bricks at the site had reached 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. While working at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Shahack-Gross and Forget made new mud bricks, and then tried to determine how quickly the bricks would catch on fire by placing them in a hot oven and timing how long it took the bricks’ cores to reach 1,112 degrees. The scientists found that the larger bricks took longer to heat than smaller bricks, and that wood beams, furniture, mats, stored food and oil, and bedding probably helped the fire at Tel Megiddo to spread. Critics point out that in an actual fire, a home’s bricks would probably have been heated only on one side. “We are totally aware of the fact that the experiment, [which was done] in controlled conditions in the lab, does not mimic what happened in the past,” responded Shahack-Gross. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to “Sun and Moon.”

Vindolanda Roman Fort Yields Hundreds of Shoes

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—Chronicle Live reports that more than 400 shoes sized for men, women, and children, were recovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda over the summer, bringing the total of shoes from the site to more than 7,000. The 1,800-year-old shoes included ones made solely for indoor wear, boots, sandals, and bath clogs. The footwear was found in a defensive ditch, along with pottery and the remains of cats and dogs. Andrew Birley, director of Vindolanda’s excavations, thinks the contents of the ditches may have been discarded when the garrison withdrew from the fort in A.D. 212, when the war between northern British tribes and Roman forces ended. “They may have had to walk hundreds of miles and perhaps longer and had to leave anything they couldn’t carry,” he said. All of the shoes will be conserved. “The volume of footwear has presented some challenges for our lab but with the help of dedicated volunteers we have created a specific space for the shoe conservation and the process is now well underway,” explained trust curator Barbara Birley. To read about a writing tablet found at Vindolanda, go to “Artifact.”

Word Puzzle Found on Agora Walls in Smyrna

IZMIR, TURKEY—The Daily Sabah reports that excavators led by Akin Ersoy of Dokuz Eylül University found Greek words and names carved in a wall of the basilica in the marketplace of ancient Smyrna. The positions of the words and names resemble a modern acrostic. “The same words are written both from top to bottom and left to right in five columns,” he said. “The word ‘logos,’ which is located in the center, is on the third column.” Some scholars have suggested that early Christians communicated in such puzzles, but Ersoy says that this one was carved in an area where there were market stalls and is unlikely to have conveyed a secret message. He thinks it is more likely that the salespeople working in the agora’s booths carved the words to entertain themselves during slow periods. Ersoy added that love poems have also been found written on the walls of the agora. To read about a massive inscription discovered in Turkey, go to “In Search of a Philosopher’s Stone.”

Mass Graves Exhumed in Central Spain

VALLADOLID, SPAIN—Reuters reports that Valladolid’s city council has authorized the exhumation of mass graves that could hold the remains of more than 1,000 people killed between 1936 and 1939, during the country’s civil war, and during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco that followed. So far, three graves have been excavated, and the bones of 185 individuals have been sent to a forensic archaeologist for analysis. “This is a question of national dignity and human rights rather than opening the wounds of the past,” said Oscar Puente, the mayor of Valladolid. There may be as many as ten mass graves in the cemetery. For more on archaeology in Spain, go to “The Red Lady of El Mirón.”