Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, August 17

Scientists Say Overkill Hypothesis Confirmed

EXETER, ENGLAND—For decades, scholars have debated what led to the mass extinction of the so-called megafauna species such as wooly mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and giant armadillos. Some argued that the giant mammals were the victims of overhunting, while others pointed to climate change as the main factor in the great die-off. Now a group of researchers has used new statistical methods that they say point conclusively to human hunters as the culprits. The team examined thousands of scenarios and found that species extinction was more closely correlated to human migration than to climate change. “As far as we are concerned, this research is the nail in the coffin of this 50-year debate—humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of megafauna,” said Lewis Bartlett of the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation in a press release. “It debunks the myth of early humans living in harmony with nature." For a similar study, go to "The Arrival of People Doomed New Zealand's Moa."

Famous Mexican Pyramid Built on Top of a River

CHICHÉN ITZÁ, MEXICO—Scientists from Mexico’s National Autonomous University tell the Guardian that they have discovered a subterranean river under El Castillo, the main pyramid at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá. The river was identified about 60 feet below the pyramid using geophysical techniques, and may have once connected some of the sacred sinkholes, called centoes, that surround El Castillo. To read about the discovery of a famous ancient pigment at Chichén Itzá’s sacred cenote that made our Top 10 Discoveries list, go to “Sacred Maya Blue.”  

Siberian Remains Could Date to 50,000 Years Ago

NOVOSIBIRSK, SIBERIA—The Siberian Times reports that a team led by Novosibirsk State University archaeologist Andrei Krivoshapkin has discovered human remains while excavating a 50,000-year old layer of earth in a cave in the mountainous Altai region. Krivoshapkin's crew unearthed skull fragments and a rib, and earlier uncovered a finger bone in a higher level dating from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. The site is about 80 miles west of Denisova Cave, where the remains of a previously unknown species, dubbed “Denisovans” have been discovered. While Krivoshapkin cautions that it's too soon to say which species the bones came from, he does note that "whatever the results, they will help us understand the interaction of modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans in the Altai territory." To read more about Denisovans and other recent human ancestors, go to “Our Tangled Ancestry.”

Evidence for Roman Glassmaking in Ancient Egypt Uncovered

TEL MUTUBIS, EGYPT—A survey conducted in Egypt’s Nile Delta at the site of Tell Mutubis has unearthed evidence for glassmaking in the Roman period. Excavators have found glass shards and glass vessels, indicating, lead archaeologist Penny Wilson told the Cairo Post, that “furnaces used to manufacture glass existed in this area.” A number of coins found at the site have confirmed the dating to the Roman era, which lasted from the fourth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. To read about some lost Roman glass trinkets found in a surprising place, go to “Oops! Down the Drain.”

Friday, August 14

3.4-Million-Year-Old Animal Bones Appear to Have Been Butchered

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—Marks on a pair of 3.4-million-year-old animal bones found at the site of Dikka, Ethiopia, appear to have been caused by butchering with stone tools, argue Jessica Thompson of Emory University and her colleagues in the Journal of Human Evolution. The new study uses statistical analysis of marks on more than 4000 bones found at the same site to refute a claim made by other scientists in 2011 that the marks were caused by incidental trampling. The bones date to long before the emergence of the genus Homo and appear to significantly push back the evidence for the earliest known instance of large animal butchering. "Our analysis shows with statistical certainty that the marks on the two bones in question were not caused by trampling," Thompson said in a press release. "While there is abundant evidence that other bones at the site were damaged by trampling, these two bones are outliers. The marks on them still more closely resemble marks made by butchering." To read about the earliest known stone tools, go to “The First Toolkit.”

Sun Temple Excavated in Denmark

BORNHOLM, DENMARK—University of Warsaw archaeologists are joining excavations at the site of Vasagard on the Island of Bornholm. Specialists believe that some 5,500-years ago, a temple complex stood at the site that may have been used for rituals associated with sun worship. Stone disks inscribed with images of sun rays have been discovered there and the complex had an entrance that was aligned in the direction of the solstice sunrise. This summer archaeologists unearthed several ditches at the site, which may have held remains that were taken to burial chambers once they had decomposed. "In the ditches we find large amounts of pottery, animal bones and damaged stone sun discs,” archaeologist Janusz Janowski told Science and Scholarship in Poland. “The function of the latter has not been fully explained yet." To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to "Bronze Age Traveler."

Chinese Cave Graffiti Recounts History of Drought

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—An international team of scientists has discovered graffiti on the walls of Dayu Cave in central China describing the effect of several periods of drought spanning from 1520 to 1920, according to a press release from the University of Cambridge. An inscription from 1528, for example, reads: "Drought occurred in the 7th year of the Emperor Jiajing period, Ming Dynasty. Gui Jiang and Sishan Jiang came to Da'an town to acknowledge the Dragon Lake inside in Dayu Cave." The researchers also analyzed stable isotopes and trace elements in cave formations such as stalagmites for indications of annual rainfall levels and found that they attested to low rainfall during the periods when droughts were recorded in the cave writings. To read about the mysterious disappearance of a Bronze Age Chinese civilization, go to “Seismic Shift.”

"Amazon" Burial Discovered in Russia

  MOSCOW, RUSSIA—The Daily Mail reports that during construction of a new airport near the city of Rostov-on-Don, a team led by the Russian Institute of Archaeology’s Roman Mimohod unearthed a 2,000-year-old unlooted burial of a Sarmatian noblewoman. A nomadic people who occupied the steppes north of the Black Sea from the fifth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., the Sarmatians were famous in the ancient world for their woman warriors, who are thought to have inspired the Amazons of Greek mythology. More than 100 iron arrowheads were discovered in the grave, along with a gem with a Phoenician or Aramaic inscription, and a number of pieces of gold jewlery, which date from an unusually long period of time, from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. "It is rather unique, I have not see such a combination before and have not heard about it, “ said Mimohod in a press release. "This can mean that the most ancient things were handed down for a long time and finally were buried with this noble woman." To read about a similar discovery, go to "Scythian Treasure Site Discovered."

Thursday, August 13

Rare Roman Jewelery in Northern England

MARYPORT, ENGLAND—Archaeologists digging at a Roman settlement in northwestern England have found a rare piece of rock crystal that might have been the centerpiece of a ring, reports BBC Cumbria. Dating to the second or third century A.D., the back of the crystal appears to have been carved with a depiction of a bearded man. It is just one of several important artifacts to have emerged from the site, a civilian settlement that was associated with a fort that was one of the outposts guarding Hadrian’s Wall, which long marked the frontier of Roman Britain. To read about another remarkable artifact unearthed on the Romano-British frontier, go to “Artifact: Roman Birthday Party Invite.”

Searching for Prohibition’s Bootlegging Widows

BUTTE, MONTANA—A team of University of Montana archaeologists is at work in the historic Butte neighborhood known as the Cabbage Patch searching for Prohibition-era artifacts left behind by widows who took on the role of bootleggers. The impoverished community was occupied by lower class mining families during the Prohibition Era. Widows who lost their husbands to mining accidents were known to take up the making of moonshine just to get by, often with the tacit approval of law enforcement. Led by archaeologist Kelli Casias, the team plans on excavating three sites in Butte. Should they find enough artifacts from the era, “it'll change our perspective on Prohibition," Casias told NBC News Montana. "It will change the whole story completely." For more on the archaeology of immigrant settlements in the West, go to "America's Chinatowns."

Possible Victims of 17th-Century Plague Uncovered

LONDON, ENGLAND—Continuing work on the Crossrail high-speed rail line for southern England has kept archaeologists in London busy at Bedlam burial ground, the site of the new Liverpool Street station—more than 3,500 hundred skeletons have been found this year alone. New images and a 360-degree video of the bodies of 30 possible victims of the Great Plague of 1665 uncovered at the burial ground have revealed that all the bodies were likely buried on the same day. “This mass burial is very likely a reaction to a catastrophic event,” project archaeologist Jay Carver told Culture 24, explaining why the grave differs from the individual burials also uncovered in the cemetery. To read about another massive graveyard and what it reveals about conditions in 19th-century London, go to “Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”

Evidence of 6th-Century Roman Sanctuary Discovered

ROME, ITALY—Archaeologists have been working on the Palatine Hill in Rome for decades, trying to uncover evidence of the city’s earliest history. This summer’s excavations on the northeast slope have unearthed the foundations of one of those early buildings, a part of a sixth-century B.C. structure, according to a report in the New York Times.  While the sixth-century date is impressively early, in fact the sanctuary, called the Curiae Veteres, of which the building was a part likely dates back to the eighth-century B.C., at the very time of Rome’s foundation in 753 B.C. The Curia Veteres was in continuous use for twelve centuries, according to excavation director Clementina Panella, until pagan cults were banned when the Roman Empire became Christianized. To read about new work being in done in the Domus Aurea, the largest palace in ancient Rome, go to “Golden House of an Emperor.”