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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 04

Climate Change in the Ancient Southwest

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Archaeologist Tim Kohler and researcher Kyle Bocinsky of Washington State University have used tree-ring data, the temperature and water requirements of growing maize, and computer programs to produce a map of the ideal growing regions of the American Southwest for the past 2,000 years. How did the ancestral Pueblo people of southwest Colorado react to climate change in the late 1200s? The data suggest that some 40,000 people left Mesa Verde when drought made it difficult to grow the staple crop, at the same time that there was a population spike at the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande, where conditions had become ideal. “People are generally going to try and find ways to keep on keeping on, to do what they’ve been doing before changing their technological strategy,” Bocinsky explained to Science Daily. To read about investigations into another ancient Southwestern culture, see "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

Cancer Identified in 4,500-Year-Old Skeleton

SASKATOON, CANADA—Holes in the well-preserved bones of a man who died in Siberia 4,500 years ago show that he suffered from lung or prostate cancer that had spread throughout his body from his hip to his head. “This is one of [the oldest]—if not the oldest—absolute cases of cancer that we can be really, really confident saying that it’s cancer,” bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Sasketchewan told CBC News. She speculates that the hunter-gatherer may have developed lung cancer from inhaling smoke from wood fires, and other non-environmental factors. Unlike other men in his community, this man had been buried in the fetal position in a circular pit with an intricately carved bone spoon. “It’s a tragic story. It breaks your heart to think of what he went through,” she said. To read about another ancient cancer case in Siberia, see "MRI Shows 'Princess Ukok' Suffered From Cancer."

Soil Analysis Reveals Traces of Frankincense in Roman Burials

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—Analysis of residues collected from 49 burials from Roman Britain has identified traces of frankincense, which was imported from southern Arabia or eastern Africa, in four of them. Traces of resins imported from the Mediterranean region and northern Europe were found in ten others. “Archaeologists have relied on finding visible resin fragments to substantiate the descriptions of burial rites in classical texts, but these rarely survive. Our alternative approach of analyzing grave deposits to find the molecular signatures of the resins—which fortunately are very distinctive—has enabled us to carry out the first systematic study across a whole province,” Rhea Brettell of the University of Bradford told the Telegraph & Argus. Based upon the type of burial containers used and the clothing that the deceased had been wearing, the resins were only recovered from the burials of higher status individuals. Classical texts record that such precious resins were used to mask the smell of decomposition during funeral rites. They were thought to purify the dead and help them pass to the afterlife. To read more about Roman funeral rites, see "Burial Customs."

Celtic Coin Hoard Contains Six Torques

ST. HELIER, JERSEY—A large, solid gold torque, or neck ornament, has been partially excavated from a hoard of coins and other jewelry discovered on the island of Jersey. The torque has a massive decoration where it probably locked around the wearer’s neck. The conservation team from Jersey Heritage does not know yet if the ring is complete because it is still covered with coins. “We did see some gold jewelry on the surface of the hoard, but since we’ve started looking at this shoe-box sized area, we’ve uncovered a total of six torques, five of which are gold and one of which we believe to be gold-plated. This is the only one that we think is whole, though,” Neil Mahrer of the Jersey Museum told Culture 24. To read about an ornament that combined Celtic and Roman styles, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."

Wednesday, December 03

Massive Water Basin Unearthed in Rome

ROME, ITALY—What is being called the largest Roman water basin ever found has been unearthed during the excavation of Rome’s new metro line. “It’s so big that it goes beyond the perimeter of the [metro] work site and it has not been possible to uncover it completely. It was lined with hydraulic plaster and, on the basis the size that had been determined so far, it could hold more than four million liters of water,” archaeologist Rossella Rea told ANSA Italy. The basin was part of a water system that originally belonged to a farm dating to the third century B.C. In the first century A.D., structures were added to the basin that allowed it to distribute water over a greater area. "No other basin from ancient Roman agriculture is of comparable size," said Rea. To read more about Roman engineering, see "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."

Survey Reveals Medieval City in England

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A team from the University of Southampton has employed high-tech tools to map the remains of medieval buildings at Old Sarum. The city, founded in the Iron Age, eventually declined after the construction of a new cathedral and the rise of New Sarum, now known as Salisbury, in the thirteenth century. The survey shows where individual buildings had been located, including large structures that may have been for defense, and open areas that may have been used for gathering people and supplies. Residential and industrial areas with kilns or furnaces were also found. “Archaeologists and historians have known for centuries that there was a medieval city at Old Sarum, but until now there has been no proper plan of the site,” Kristian Strutt, director of the Old Sarum and Stratford-Sub-Castle Archaeological Survey Project, told BBC News. To read about how remote sensing is allowing archaeologists to map the ancient Maya landscape, see "Lasers in the Jungle."

Roman and Pictish Silver Hoard Discovered in Scotland

ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND—More than 100 pieces of silver, including coins and jewelry, have been unearthed in northeastern Scotland. “It is a hugely important discovery being Europe’s most northerly Late Roman hacksilver hoard, and also containing otherwise unique Pictish silver,” Martin Goldberg of the National Museums Scotland told The Herald Scotland. Silver objects that had been chopped up into bullion, called hacksilver, were used as payment, bribes, tribute, and rewards, according to Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen. “The new finds include late Roman coins, pieces of late Roman silver vessels, bracelet and brooch fragments, and other objects that would have been highly prized objects in their day,” he explained. The research team is investigating the interaction between the Picts and the Late Roman world. To read about a similar recent discovery, see "The Dovedale Hoard."

Shells Engraved by Homo erectus Found in Museum Collection

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—While photographing and cataloging hundreds of fossilized mollusk shells collected in the nineteenth century by Eugène Dubois in Java, Indonesia, where he discovered the first Homo erectus, Stephen Munro of Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia noticed that one of the specimens was engraved. “When I got to image number 298 I almost fell off my chair. It was one of those eureka moments where I thought, ‘this really does have the potential to rewrite what we know about human evolution,’” he told Australian Geographic. Munro and the other scientists wanted to know if the shells belonged to a natural or man-made assemblage. But they noticed that holes in the shells indicated that Homo erectus had identified the best way to open them and remove the food. Soon additional engraved shells and a polished shell that may have been used as a cutting or scraping tool were identified. These engraved and worked shells are at least 300,000 years old than the previously oldest confirmed engravings, which were created by modern humans, and discovered in South Africa. “The find simply shows that half a million years ago, Homo erectus was capable of producing a puzzling zigzag pattern. This is just one piece, but the fact that hundreds of thousands of years ago hominins were capable of producing this zigzag probably means that in due time, more such finds will turn up,” said research-team member Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University. To read about shell beads in the Paleolithic, see "In Style in the Stone Age."

Tuesday, December 02

Excavation Continues at James Fort

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA—Post holes and a pit suggest that a structure with a cellar was built into an outside wall of James Fort sometime after 1608, when the three-sided fort was expanded to five sides. Mary Anna Richardson, a staff archaeologist with Preservation Virginia, thinks the cellar was used between 1610 and 1620, but the excavation team is still removing layers of trash from the post-James Fort period and has not yet reached the occupation layer. The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reports that a small copper jetton, or sixteenth-century counting tool, has been found among the debris, along with fragments of a wine bottle. To read about the "Starving Time" the colonists endured, see "Chilling Discovery at Jamestown."

“Biggest Boulder” Unearthed in Lebanon

BERLIN, GERMANY—A limestone block weighing an estimated 1,650 tons has been discovered at the site of Baalbek by a team of Lebanese archaeologists and scientists from the German Archaeological Institute. The site, a stone quarry, is located about a quarter of a mile from a temple complex in the ancient city of Heliopolis. “The level of smoothness indicates the block was meant to be transported and used without being cut,” the German Archaeological Institute said in a statement reported by Discovery News. Such massive blocks were used in the sanctuary of the Temple of Jupiter. The block was perhaps left in the quarry because of a flaw that could have caused it to crack during the trip to the temple. To read more about discoveries in the region, see "Rebuilding Beirut."

Early Human Ancestors Benefited From Fermenting Fruit

GAINSEVILLE, FLORIDA—The gene that produces the ADH4 enzyme, which allows humans to digest alcohol, could be ten million years old, according to a new study conducted by biologist Matthew Carrigan of Santa Fe College. “Our ape ancestors gained a digestive enzyme capable of metabolizing ethanol near the time they began using the forest floor about ten million years ago. Because fruit collected from the forest floor is expected to contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on trees this transition may also be the first time our ancestors were exposed to—and adapted to—substantial amounts of dietary ethanol,” Carrigan told The Telegraph. It had been thought that the enzyme first appeared when Neolithic farmers in northern China began fermenting foods some 9,000 years ago. To read more on alcohol in the archaeological record, see "Europe's Earliest Wine."

Team Says DNA Results Confirm Identification of Richard III

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—“The evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of Richard III,” geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester announced at a press conference reported in Live Science. An analysis of the archaeological, genetic, and genealogical evidence produced a 6.7 million to 1, or 99.99 percent chance, that the remains recovered from a parking lot in 2012 belong to the last king of the House of York. Historical records indicate that he was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth and buried at a monastery in Leicester. The remains show signs of scoliosis and battle wounds, matching accounts of Richard’s appearance and death. Samples of mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton were compared to mitochondrial DNA from two descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. One sample was a perfect match; the other had a one-letter difference. “That is perfectly what we would expect. The mitochondrial DNA has to be copied to be passed down through generations, and you get little typos,” King said. In addition, this particular sequence of mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the female line, seems to be rare. A study of the skeleton’s Y chromosome, which is passed down virtually unchanged through the male line, was compared to samples taken from five living men whose family trees suggest a relationship to Richard III. The researchers found, however, that none of the men shared the same Y chromosome as Richard III, indicating that there had been a “false paternity event.” Richard III’s Y chromosome could eventually be compared to remains of two children, thought to be the nephews the king has been accused of murdering, that were recovered from the Tower of London in the seventeenth century. “We don’t know for sure whether or not those remains are those of the princes. We now have the Y chromosome of Richard III, and that should be identical to both of the princes since they shared the same paternal line,” University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer explained. To read about the original discovery of the remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."