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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, April 05

2,400-Year-Old Greek Curse Tablets Translated

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Live Science reports that five lead curse tablets, discovered in a grave in Athens, Greece, in 2003, have been studied by Jessica Lamont of John Hopkins University. The tablets, held at the Piraeus Museum, may have been placed in the young woman’s grave in order to deliver them to the gods of the underworld. Four of the tablets were engraved with well-written curses targeting different tavern keepers in Athens and the names of the chthonic gods. “It’s very rare that you get something so explicit and lengthy and beautifully written, of course in a very terrible way,” Lamont said. The fifth tablet was blank—the words of the curse were probably spoken over it. All of the tablets had been pierced with a nail and folded. Lamont explained that the tablets may have had nothing to do with the woman whose remains were also found in the grave. Her burial “would have been accessible, a good access point for someone to deposit these tablets underground and bury them,” she said. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Study Says Human Sacrifice Supported Social Hierarchy

AUKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—A team of researchers from the University of Aukland’s School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Victoria University used computational evolutionary methods to analyze historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures organized into three main groups of high, moderate, and low levels of social stratification. Forty of the 93 cultures in the study practiced some form of ritualistic killing of humans—justified as a supernatural punishment—including burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, cutting to pieces, crushing beneath a canoe, or rolling off the roof of a house followed by decapitation. The study found that cultures with the highest level of social stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice, while more egalitarian societies were less likely to practice human sacrifice. “By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass, and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” Joseph Watts said in a press release. “What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure,” added team member Quentin Atkinson. To read about the tomb of a likely human sacrifice victim in Korea, go to "Mysterious Golden Sacrifice."

Bronze Incense Shovel Unearthed Near Sea of Galilee

MIGDAL, ISRAEL—A bronze incense shovel and a bronze jug were unearthed next to each other in a storehouse near a dock at the site of Magdala, a Jewish settlement located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The site is known for its ritual baths and a first-century synagogue decorated with mosaic floors. Carvings on the Magdala Stone, found in the synagogue’s main hall, depict the Second Temple of Jerusalem and a seven-branched menorah. The shovel also dates to the Second Temple period, and may have been used to rake or gather embers from incense burned in rituals or as a tool for daily tasks. “A similar incense shovel and a jug as those found here in Migdal were discovered by Yigael Yadin in a cache dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising which was revealed in the Cave of the Letters in the Judean Desert. Incense shovels have also been found in the Galilee at Bethsaida, Taiyaba and in Wadi Hammam, and across the country, but all-in-all this is a very rare find,” archaeologist Arfan Najar said in a press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to "Autumn of the Master Builder."

Monday, April 04

Biologists Find Possible Hannibal Route

BELFAST, IRELAND—An international team of scientists believe they have found evidence that a “mass animal deposition” event occurred near the Col de Traversette pass some 2,000 years ago. The scientists, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, claim that the deposition was left by the 30,000 men of the Carthaginian army, 37 elephants, and more than 15,000 horses and mules led over the Alps by Hannibal during the Second Punic War with Rome. This route through the Alps was first suggested as Hannibal’s path by biologist Sir Gavin de Beer some 50 years ago. “The deposition," said Chris Allen of Queen’s University Belfast in a press release, "lies within a churned-up mass from a three-foot thick alluvial mire, produced by the constant movement of thousands of animals and humans." The researchers say that over 70 percent of the microbes in horse manure are from a group known as the Clostridia that are very stable in soil—surviving for thousands of years. They report they have uncovered scientifically significant evidence of these same bugs in a genetic microbial signature precisely dating to the time of the Punic invasion. For more on archaeology in the Alps, go to "Ötzi, the Iceman."

Bullet May Have Been Fired by Lawrence of Arabia

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—A team of archaeologists working on the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP) has discovered a bullet that they say was fired by Lawrence of Arabia at the site of the 1917 Hallat Ammar train ambush. “The bullet we found came from a Colt automatic pistol, the type of gun known to be carried by Lawrence and almost certainly not used by any of the ambush’s other participants,” Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol said in a press release. “Lawrence has something of a reputation as a teller of tall tales, but this bullet—and the other archaeological evidence we unearthed during ten years of fieldwork—indicates how reliable his account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom is,” said archaeologist Neil Faulker. For more on Middle Eastern archaeology, go to "The World in Between."

Southwest Cultural Transitions Spurred by Climate Change

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Kyle Bocinsky and Tim Kohler of Washington State University and their colleagues at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois analyzed data from 1,000 archaeological sites in the American Southwest, and 30,000 tree-ring dates, in order to examine patterns of societal expansion and collapse. They found that periods of drought and crop failure were followed by periods of exploration and exploitation. Between A.D. 600 and 700, people stored their maize in underground chambers. That practice ended with a mild drought. The following Pueblo I period was marked by aboveground storage rooms and perhaps a more restricted exchange of food between family groups. This period, ended by drought, was followed by the large shared plazas and great houses, and hierarchal social structure, of the Pueblo II period. Some of the greatest evidence of social inequality is seen during the Pueblo III period, ended by the largest and most widespread drought. During the following Pueblo IV period, thought to be more egalitarian, people built pueblos that shared plazas and ceremonial spaces. “There’s a point where people say, ‘This isn’t working. We’re leaving,’” Kohler said in a press release. Then “there’s a new period of wealth creation, investment in architecture and culture change,” he explained. To read more about archaeology in this area, go to "Early Parrots in the Southwest."

European Arrival Devastated Ancient American Genetic Lineages

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—Analysis of DNA samples from 92 pre-Columbian mummies and skeletons, ranging in age from 500 to 8,600 years old, suggests that European colonization wiped out their genetic lineages. “Surprisingly, none of the genetic lineages we found in almost 100 ancient humans were present, or showed evidence of descendants, in today’s Indigenous populations,” Bastien Llamas of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide said in a press release. Llamas and his team of researchers think that a major portion of isolated groups of early Americans died out after European colonization. “This closely matches the historical reports of a major demographic collapse immediately after the Spaniards arrived in the late 1400s,” he said. The study also yielded information about the arrival of the first Americans. “Our genetic reconstruction confirms that the first Americans entered around 16,000 years ago via the Pacific coast, skirting around the massive ice sheets that blocked an inland corridor route which only opened much later. They spread southward remarkably swiftly, reaching southern Chile by 14,600 years ago,” added Alan Cooper, director of ACAD. For more on the earliest Americans, go to "America, in the Beginning."

Friday, April 01

Ancient Thai Manuscripts Now Available Online

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—The Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts has been launched by Justin McDaniel of the University of Pennsylvania and Harald Hundius, David Wharton, and Bounleut Thammachak of the National Library of Laos. “This is a huge project to preserve, make accessible, catalogue and scan the entire corpus of Northern Thai manuscripts. Anyone from students and researchers to monks and nuns can now read this preserved literature of an entire people,” McDaniel said in a press release. The library contains approximately 5,000 ancient manuscripts from monastic temples, and will eventually contain more than 7,000. The database also includes material from the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project of the Chiang Mai University Library. “It’s mostly Buddhist material, but also scientific material, historical material, botany, astrology, grammar, folk tales, philosophical tales, a massive corpus going back from 1410 to the 1950s when print became more popular,” McDaniel added. To read about an ancient site on the Thai-Cambodian border, go to "The Battle Over Preah Vihear."

Excavations Conducted at Illinois’ Glidden Homestead

DEKALB, ILLINOIS—Archaeologist Eli Orrvar is excavating the nineteenth-century barn at the home of Joseph F. Glidden, who improved the design of barbed wire and patented it in 1874. Barbed wire was used to construct inexpensive fencing that could restrain cattle, and at first, Glidden manufactured it in his barn. The excavation will become part of the exhibit at the Glidden Homestead. “We have this plan for the usage and historical restoration. The idea is to clear this off so we can clear [the flooring] and then dig those test pits and see if there are artifacts in there,” historic site director Rob Glover told The Northwest Herald. So far, the team has uncovered a glass medicine bottle, a kitchen knife handle, and fragments of glass, coal, and animal bones. To read more about historical archaeology in the United States, go to "Letter from Philadelphia: City Garden."

Possible Viking Site Spotted in Newfoundland

POINT ROSEE, NEWFOUNDLAND—A second possible New-World Viking site has been found on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, about 300 miles south of “L’Anse aux Meadows,” which was discovered in 1960. The site was spotted by  archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, while she was looking at high-resolution satellite images of New World coastlines. The site, called Point Rosee, appeared as a dark stain with buried rectilinear features. On the ground, magnetometer readings showed elevated iron readings, and test trenches exposed turf walls, ash residue, a fire-cracked boulder, and roasted ore called bog iron. “It screams, ‘Please excavate me!’,” Parcak told The New York Times. Team member Douglas Bolender of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, thinks the buried structure could be a smithy for forging longboat nails and weaponry. “There’s no lock that it’s Norse, but there’s no alternative evidence,” he explained. To read more about Norse settlements, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."

Fabric Found in Nepal Suggests Silk Road Connection

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California Merced and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge led the excavation of ten shaft tombs cut into the rock of a cliff face in Upper Mustang, Nepal. One of the tombs, Samdzong 5, yielded cloth dated to between 400 and 650 A.D., and a gold and silver funerary mask. Analysis of the cloth shows that it had been made with local materials, and silk and dyes imported from China and India. “There is no evidence for local silk production suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road,” Margarita Gleba of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge said in a press release. Copper, glass, and cloth beads had been sewn to the fabric. Pinholes in the funerary mask suggest that it had also been sewn to a piece of fabric, perhaps as part of a piece of decorative headwear. To read more about archaeology in Nepal, go to "Buddhism, in the Beginning."