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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, October 27

High-Tech Images Reveal Texts of the Philae Obelisk

DORSET, ENGLAND—Modern imaging techniques are being used to examine the inscriptions on the Philae Obelisk, which was brought to the Kingston Lacy estate from Egypt’s island of Philae in the Nile by adventurer and collector William John Bankes. “The last time anyone made a good record of what was on this stone was in 1821 when a lithograph was commissioned to celebrate the obelisk’s arrival at Kingston Lacy,” Jane Masséglia of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford University told BBC News. The new images show that the lithograph was accurate, and they illuminate parts of the Greek text that have always been difficult to see. Along with the Rosetta stone, the inscriptions on the Philae Obelisk—the repetition of the names of kings and queens in both Greek and Egyptian—provided clues that helped nineteenth-century scholars translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. “It gives us a good opportunity now to look at the relationship between the two inscriptions, to see if they’re talking about the kings in similar ways—because there’s the potential that they were appealing to different ethnic communities. You’ve got the hieroglyphs that are showing the king as a traditional pharaoh, and the Greek that might be saying something a little bit different to other people reading those inscriptions,” explained Rachel Mairs of both Oxford and Reading universities. To read about an unusual burial chamber in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Tomb of the Chantress."

17th-C. French Explorer’s Ship To Be Reassembled in Texas

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Conservation of the hull of La Belle, a French frigate that sank in a storm off the Texas coast in 1686, has been completed at Texas A&M University. The ship is gradually being reassembled and installed at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. La Belle was discovered in 1995 by Texas Historical Commission archaeologists, who built a dam around the wreck site and pumped it dry so they could excavate the nearly intact hull from six feet of mud. The new exhibit will eventually allow visitors to have the sensation of being on the ship’s deck from a glass cabin-like structure. French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle had been the first European explorer to travel the Mississippi south to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming the land for France. He later returned to the region with 300 colonists aboard four ships, including the well-stocked La Belle. The expedition failed, however, as did his colony at Fort St. Louis, located near Matagorda Bay. La Salle was killed by some of his men. “Rather than the ship being empty when it wrecked, everything he had left that you need for a colony was in the Belle,” curator Jim Bruseth of the Bullock Texas State History Museum told Phys.org. For ARCHAEOLOGY's original coverage of the discovery see "La Salle Ship Sighted."

New Thoughts on Ancient Greek Wine Cup

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—John Barnes of the University of Missouri suggests that rather than depicting a simple animal scene, a 2,600-year-old skyphos at the Lamia Archaeological Museum in central Greece could portray an early Greek understanding of constellations. Approximately one-third of the wine cup, which was discovered in a trench next to a temple in the acropolis of Halai, is missing, but images of the back half of a bull, a snake, a hare or small dog, a large dog, a scorpion, a dolphin, and the front half of a panther or a lion have been preserved. Barnes spotted the skyphos while visiting the museum. “My dad raised me on astronomy, and to me, the snake, rabbit, and dog together looked like constellations. That group jumped out at me,” he told Live Science. He adds that the decorative images may have been arranged into seasonal groups. To read about a Greek colony established in Italy around this time, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Rediscovering Paestum." 

Friday, October 24

17th-Century Vaults Unearthed in 13th-Century Irish Church

CORK, IRELAND—Subsidence in the aisle at St. Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal, a prosperous medieval port town, has led to the discovery of three burial vaults dating to the seventeenth century. The church, which was built in 1250, is the oldest continuously used church in Ireland. “We have unearthed some pottery and coins from the seventeenth century and a fabulous underground central heating system which was modelled on the Roman aqua duct system. It dates to the eighteenth century and boiling water was poured in to provide the heating,” archaeologist Caroline Desmond told The Irish Examiner. Desmond and her team will stabilize the area where they have been working and continue the investigation next year because the church’s annals indicate that another five tombs remain to be found under the aisle. “We will undoubtedly find more archaeology there. The roof of the church is still the original and it was built by French carpenters. That also goes to show that Youghal was a very prosperous town at the time as the merchants were able to pay to bring in skilled labor from abroad,” she explained. 

Dental Health in Roman Britain Studied

LONDON, ENGLAND—Only five percent of Roman Britons had severe gum disease, despite the prevalence of infections, abscesses, and tooth decay in their smiles, according to a study conducted by a team made of researchers from King’s College London and London’s Natural History Museum. They examined 303 skulls recovered from a cemetery in Dorset. Most of these people had died in their 40s sometime between 200 and 400 A.D. “The amount of severe gum disease around today is around one third of the population. But much to our surprise these people didn’t have a lot of gum disease, but they did have a lot of other dental problems,” Francis Hughes of the dental institute at King’s College London told BBC News. Wear and tear from abrasive grains and cereals in the pre-toothbrush age probably contributed to longstanding infections and chronic pain. “This study shows a major deterioration in oral health between Roman times and modern England. By underlining the probable role of smoking, especially in determining the susceptibility to progressive periodontitis in modern populations, there is a real sign that the disease can be avoided,” added Theya Molleson of the Natural History Museum.  For more on the study of dental health, see "The Virtues of Stone Age Dentistry." 

Ancient Burial Mounds Looted in Denmark

GRINDSTED, DENMARK—Police are investigating the destruction of four ancient burial sites in southeast Jutland, according to a report in The Copenhagen Post. The protected graves were estimated to be 4,000 years old. Similar burials have contained stone axes, jewelry, and pottery. This is the first time graves in Denmark have been plundered since the end of the 1890s. “The things we could have learned from the burial mounds have now been erased from history. We can no longer investigate how ancient life was in this area of Jutland,” said archaeologist Lars Bjarke Christensen of the country’s culture ministry. 

Golden Horde City Excavated in Russia

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—A thirteenth-century city founded by Batu Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan, is being excavated in Russia. Located along the Volga River, this prosperous city, known as Ukek, was part of the Golden Horde kingdom, which controlled many of the Silk Road trade routes connecting China and Europe. Christianity, Islam, and Shamanism were all practiced in Ukek. Archaeologists from the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore are currently excavating two temples in the city’s Christian quarter. The earlier temple had a tile roof and was decorated inside and out with murals and stone carvings. “Some items belonging to the local elite were found in the Christian district. Among other things, there is a Chinese glass hair pin, with a head shaped as a split pomegranate, and a fragment of a bone plate with a carved dragon image,” archaeologist Dmitriy Kubankin told Live Science. Goods such as imported fine plates and bottles were found stored in the temple’s basement. When that temple was destroyed, a second was built with stone walls and a tile roof. The city was eventually conquered by Tamerlane in 1395. Kubankin presented his team’s findings at the recent meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists. To read about the excavation of medieval fortifications in Siberia, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Fortress of Solitude."

Thursday, October 23

Rapa Nui Genes Suggest Pre-Columbian Voyage

OSLO, NORWAY—Evidence for contact between Polynesians from Easter Island and South Americans sometime before 1500 A.D. has been found in the genomes of 27 living Rapa Nui islanders, according to a report in Science. European and Native American DNA patterns were found in the modern Rapa Nui genomes. The Native American DNA patterns accounted for about eight percent of the Rapa Nui genomes, and they were broken up and scattered, suggesting that genetic recombination had been at work on the material for some time. The relatively intact sections of European genetic patterns were unevenly spread among the population. This suggests that European genes were introduced relatively recently, perhaps when explorers settled on the island in the nineteenth century. “Our studies strongly suggest that Native Americans most probably arrived [on Rapa Nui] shortly after the Polynesians,” said Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo. But other scientists think that Pacific currents make it more likely that Polynesians sailed to South America, where they obtained sweet potatoes, chickens, and South American women before they returned home. For more on possible contacts between Polynesia and South America, see "Polynesian Chickens in Chile."

Massive 6,000-Year-Old Temple Unearthed in Ukraine

KIEV, UKRAINE—Tech Times reports that the remains of a two-story building surrounded by a galleried courtyard have been found in a prehistoric settlement of more than 1,200 buildings near Nebelivka. The 6,000-year-old building, whose upper floor had been divided into five rooms decorated with red paint, is thought to have been a temple of the Trypillian culture, and contained fragments of human figurines. Eight clay platforms that may have been used as altars were also discovered, including one on the upper floor that contained “numerous burnt bones of lamb, associated with sacrifice,” Nataliya Burdo and Mykhailo Videiko of the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, wrote in a paper that they presented at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul. Pottery fragments and animal bones were also found in the courtyard. Small ornaments of bone and gold may have been worn in the hair. To hear a prehistoric language that may have been spoken in Ukraine around this time, see "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European."

Archaeologists Survey Everglades Site

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA—National Park Service archaeologists are looking for prehistoric artifacts in an area of Everglades National Park that is slated for restoration and a new boardwalk. When the Anhinga Slough was dredged in 1968 after a record drought, park rangers collected hundreds of artifacts, but the site was never excavated. “It’s unique in the sense that it’s a submerged site. We don’t have very many of those in Florida and in this area at all. That’s why it’s special,” Penny Del Bene, chief of cultural resources, told Phys.org. So far scientists have recovered burnt wood, bone fragments, and shells for study.

45,000-Year-Old Genome of Modern Human Sequenced

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—The complete genome of a very ancient modern human has been sequenced by Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “It’s almost twice as old as the next oldest genome that has been sequenced,” Pääbo told NPR. The 45,000-year-old DNA was obtained from cells collected from the center of a femur discovered near the Irtysh River in western Siberia. The analysis shows that the man had long Neanderthal gene sequences, indicating that he’d had Neanderthal ancestors who lived between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. “They actually mixed with each other and did have children,” Pääbo said. For more on Pääbo's work, see "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."