Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 03

Mercury in Ancient Fish Bones Linked to Rising Seas

KING SALMON, ALASKA—Alaska Dispatch News reports that the bones of cod recovered from a coastal archaeological site on Mink Island in Katmai National Park and Preserve contain high levels of toxic mercury. It is thought that the flesh of the fish, eaten by the people who lived at the site between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, would have had significantly higher levels of the contaminant. The bones date to the early and mid-Holocene, when the climate was warming and rising seas were inundating the Bering Land Bridge and naturally occurring mercury in the dry or frozen land was dispersed into marine waters. The highest readings from the bones match or exceed present-day mercury levels in fish, which are elevated by mercury contamination from industrial activities around the world, according to Lawrence Duffy of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Mercury levels fell dramatically thousands of years later, once sea levels were stable. “The population, I’m comfortable in saying, would be more at risk than a population 1,000 years ago or 500 years ago when the levels had dropped,” Duffy said. For more on studies of ancient mercury contamination, see "Secrets of Life in the Soil."

18th-Dynasty Tomb Discovered in Luxor

CAIRO, EGYPT—A tomb dating to the 18th Dynasty has been discovered by a team from the American Research Center in the Gorna necropolis on Luxor’s west bank. The t-shaped tomb has two large halls and an unfinished small niche at one end. A side room has a shaft that “could lead to the burial chamber,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh el-Damaty told Ahram Online. The walls of the tomb, which was looted and damaged in antiquity, are decorated with paintings of hunting scenes and images of the tomb’s owner, a guard of Amun’s gate, and his wife in front of an offering table. Some of the scenes and hieroglyphic texts, including the name of the god Amun, had been erased. Soltan Eid, director of Upper Egypt Antiquities, explained that this may have been done during the reign of the monotheistic king Akhenaten.  For more on this period in Egyptian history, see "Hieroglyphs Shed Light on Akhenaten's Rule."

Shallow 17th-Century Grave Unearthed in Oxford

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The remains of a young woman were unearthed from a shallow grave in an area designated for gardens and buildings on historic maps. A Charles I silver shilling found near her shoulder is thought to have been placed on her eyes before she was put in a burial shroud held in place with pins. The coin was struck at the Tower Mint in 1640 or 1641 and suggests that the woman may have come from a prosperous family, but finding the remains of a wealthy person of the period buried outside a cemetery is highly unusual. “At present we have one young adult female burial that potentially dates from the English Civil War,” Carl Champness of Oxford Archaeology South told Culture 24. Archaeologists speculate that she may have died during the siege of Oxford, when a more formal burial may have been difficult. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the bones could provide more information. To read in-depth about a site that tells the story of the evolution of England's culture over the course of thousands of years, see "The Scientist's Garden."

Monday, March 02

Alaska Landslide Reveals Stone Hammer

SITKA, ALASKA—Landslides in the Starrigavan Valley last year brought a prehistoric stone tool that may have been used to drive wedges and split wood to the surface. Forest Service hydrologists Marty Becker and KK Prussian were assessing the damage in the slide area when Becker found the piece of rock. “And I noticed it felt real comfortable in my hand. Like it just fit perfectly. I brushed it off, took a closer look, and realized what it was,” he told KTOO News. The handmaul is missing one arm of its usual “T” shape. “My guess is that it would have been used for harvesting cedar. One of the many uses of cedar was as planks. And there was just a tremendous amount of cedar on that slope that came down,” explained Forest Service archaeologist Jay Kinsman. There are archaeological sites in the area that range in age from 300 to 1,200 years old, but archaeologists may never know when and where this particular tool was made. To read in-depth about prehistoric carpentry, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Mass Graves Discovered in Paris

PARIS, FRANCE—The skeletal remains of more than 200 people who may have been victims of the plagues that struck Paris in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries have been discovered at a construction site in central Paris. The site had been a cemetery hospital from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries, but it had been thought that all of the burials had been moved to the Paris Catacombs in the eighteenth century. So far, archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have uncovered seven graves that contain the remains of up to 20 individuals. An eighth grave holds the remains of more than 150 people. “What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals—men, women and children—were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” archaeologist Isabelle Abadie told The Telegraph. Further study and carbon dating could tell archaeologists more about the burials. To read about a similar discovery, see "Barcelona's Black Death Victims."

Wealthy Woman’s Medieval Grave Found at Grey Friars Site

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—A lead coffin enclosed in a larger limestone sarcophagus was unearthed at the site of the Grey Friars dig, which also yielded the grave of King Richard III. The coffin contained the skeletal remains of an elderly woman who may have been a benefactor of the friary since she had been buried inside the church, perhaps near the high altar. “The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche. Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact,” said Mathew Morris of the University of Leicester. Analysis of the bones shows that she ate a protein-rich diet rich that included large amounts of sea fish. “This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices. This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of people in medieval Leicester,” Morris added. To read about the discovery of Richard III's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

Friday, February 27

Unusual Medieval Burials Found in York

YORK, ENGLAND--Twelve skeletons dating to the time of the War of the Roses are thought to be the remains of soldiers or criminals executed at nearby Tyburn, where executions took place until 1802. All of the individuals were males between the ages of 24 and 40 at the time of death. Two of the men had suffered bone fractures that may be evidence of fighting. “We knew this was a fascinating find as, unlike fifteenth century Christian burial practice, the skeletons were all together and weren’t facing east-west,” Ruth Whyte, osteo-archaeologist for York Archaeological Trust, told The York Press. “They may have been captured in battle and brought to York for execution, possibly in the aftermath of the Battle of Towton during the Wars of the Roses, and their remains hastily buried near the gallows,” she said. To read about the recent discovery of a significant artifact dating to the war, see "War of the Roses Cannonball Recovered."

Fifth-Century Gorget Unearthed in Ohio

CINCINNATI, OHIO—Workers digging a trench earlier this month in Newtown, Ohio, uncovered a Native American burial that included a rare, fifth-century gorget. “A gorget is an ornamental item. These gorgets have three holes in them. They have two at the top for suspension and there’s one in the middle where they possibly could have been attached to clothing or something else,” Bob Genheimer, Rieveschl Curator for Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, told WVXU Cincinnati. The image on this decorative shell resembles a half bird and half cat. “We believe that the bird may be a Carolina Parakeet. Which, as many people know, is now an extinct bird, but used to be prevalent in the southern United States and as far north as here,” he said. The shell is thought to have come to Ohio from the Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic region through trade, but it is unknown where the carving was done. The remains have been reported as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. To read about a massive archaeological site in Ohio that dates to the same time, see "The Newark Earthworks."

Noblewoman’s Grave Yields Anglo-Saxon Jewelry

NORFOLK, ENGLAND—Archaeology student Tom Lucking was exploring a private field with a metal detector when a large and deep signal led him to the top of a bronze bowl. He refilled the hole and called in the geophysics team from the Suffolk Archaeological Field Group and Norfolk County Council’s Heritage Environment Service. The excavation revealed that the bowl was at the foot of the grave of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who had been buried with a fine pendant made of gold and jewels. “It’s so beautifully made. The garnet cells even have scored gold ‘foil’ at the back of them to catch the light,” archaeologist Steven Ashley of the Historic Environment Service said of the pendant. She also had a chatelaine, and a necklace made of two gold beads and repurposed gold coins. One of the coins in the necklace dates to between 639 and 656, and was minted for the Frankish king, Sigebert III. The bronze bowl was probably also imported from France. “She’s going to have known the kings of East Anglia, and France,” archaeologist Helen Geake commented to EDP 24. The woman’s skeletal remains will be analyzed for information about her age, diet, and medical conditions. For more on Anglo-Saxon archaeology, see "The Kings of Kent.'

Domestic Grain DNA Discovered in Mesolithic Britain

COVENTRY, ENGLAND—A submerged archaeological site off the southern coast of England has yielded DNA from 8,000-year-old wheat. At the time, Mesolithic Britons were hunter-gatherers, but the DNA, collected from the sediments of the Solent, the strait separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England, suggests that they maintained social and trade networks with the Neolithic farmers of mainland Europe. “Common throughout Neolithic Southern Europe, einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff. For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe. The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact. As such, far from being insular Mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe,” said Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, who co-led the research team with Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford and Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, the University of Birmingham, and the University of St. Andrews. “The use of ancient DNA from sediments also opens the door to new research on the older landscapes off the British Isles and coastal shelves across the world,” Gaffney added. To read more about early domestication, see "The Origins of Staple Foods Studied."