Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, June 03

New York’s 19th-Century Forests Reflected Human Habitation

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—New research suggests that a higher than expected number of fire-tolerant, large-nut-bearing trees such as hickory, chestnut, and oak were present near the sites of Native American villages in Western New York in the early nineteenth century. In contrast, beech and sugar maples, which burn readily in forest fires, appeared in smaller numbers than expected. Steve Tulowiecki, who conducted the study while a student at the University at Buffalo with Chris Larsen, used data on trees that was collected in a survey of Chautauqua County between 1799 and 1814, and mapped it along with temperature, precipitation, and soil conditions, to predict what types of trees would have been growing if environmental conditions were the only variables at work. “Our results contribute to the conversation about how natural or humanized the landscape of America was when Europeans first arrived,” Tulowiecki said in a press release. According to the analysis, as much as 20 percent of the land in modern-day Chautauqua County may have been modified. For more about early New York, go to "The Hidden History of New York's Harbor."

Khirbat Al-Minya Will Be Restored

MAINZ, GERMANY—The Cultural Preservation Program of the German Federal Foreign Office has provided Johannes Gutenberg University with a grant for the restoration of Khirbat Al-Minya. The early Islamic caliph’s palace, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was built by Caliph Walid I (ruled A.D. 705-715), with white limestone on a lower course of black basalt. The complex includes one of the oldest mosques in the region, which was damaged by a severe earthquake a few years after construction began. “Every year we have been witness to the gradual deterioration of the palace. By backing the project financially, Germany is assuming responsibility for an important archaeological site that would not have been excavated without the German initiative in the 1930s. At the same time, we are supporting the work of the Israel National Parks management, our students have the chance to gather practical experience in archaeological conservation, and we are also setting an example within the archaeological community for a dialog with Islam,” Hans-Peter Kuhnen of Johannes Gutenberg University said in a EurekAlert press release. To read more about archaeology in the region, go to "Rebuilding Beirut."

The Evolutionary Origins of Cooking

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—When did cooking emerge in human evolution? Felix Warneken of Harvard University and Alexandra Rosati of Yale University investigated whether or not chimpanzees have the cognitive capacities necessary for cooking as a way to approach this question. “If our closest evolutionary relative possesses these skills, it suggests that once early humans were able to use and control fire they could also use it for cooking,” Warneken said in a press release. Beyond the control of fire, cooking requires planning and the causal understanding that putting raw food on a fire changes it. Warneken and Rosati traveled to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo in order to work with wild-born chimpanzees. They found that the chimps preferred cooked food, and they have the necessary cognitive abilities to produce it. “Why would early humans be motivated to control fire? I think cooking might give you a reason. We know wild chimps will observe natural fire, and they even sometimes seek out and eat cooked food left behind by it. The evidence from our cognitive studies suggests that, even before controlling fire, early hominins understood its benefits and could reason about the outcomes of putting food on fire,” Rosati said. To read more, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Rare Natural Pearl Recovered from Australian Shell Midden

NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA—A 2,000-year-old natural marine pearl was discovered at the Brremangurey Rockshelter during excavations conducted by researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW), the University of New England, and the Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation. Located on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia, the Brremangurey Rockshelter was in use for 12,000 years. The nearly round pearl was found in a shell midden among large numbers of pearl oyster shells. “Pearls have not been recovered before from ancient sites in Australia. Since the find is unique, analysis could not damage or take samples from any portion of the pearl, so researchers from UOW developed a range of non-destructive analyses to gather more information,” Kat Szabó of UOW said in a press release. The pearl was dated through radiocarbon analysis of the surrounding shell midden material, and micro-computed tomography showed that the pearl was indeed naturally formed, and not a modern cultured pearl that worked its way into the deposit. “The analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” explained Brent Koppel of UOW. To read about historical archaeology in Australia, go to "Final Resting Place of an Outlaw."

Tuesday, June 02

New Dates Suggest First Europeans Traveled Through the Levant

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—An international team of scientists led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has developed a technique for dating shells from the Ksâr ‘Akil site in Lebanon, where the fossils of two modern human individuals, nicknamed Ethelruda and Egbert, have been found, along with their Upper Palaeolithic toolkit. The people who lived at Ksâr ‘Akil gathered these newly dated molluscs and often cut off the tops of their shells to extract the flesh. “Our analyses show that Egbert lived around 43,000 years ago and Ethelruda at least 45,900 years ago, possibly earlier. Therefore, Ethelruda pre-dates all European modern humans,” Johannes van der Plicht of Groningen University said in a press release. “Toolkits similar to those associated with Ethelruda and Egbert are also found in other sites in the Levant as well as in Europe. These similar toolkits and the earlier ages in the Near East suggest population dispersals from the Near East to Europe between 55,000 and 40,000 years ago,” explained Marjolein Bosch of the Max Planck Institute. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art discovered in Europe, go to "A New Life for the Lion Man."

Slave Ship Sank With Human Cargo On Board

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—The discovery of a slave ship that sank off the coast of Cape Town in 1794 was announced today at Iziko Museums of South Africa. Identified as the São José-Paquete de Africa, the Portuguese ship was carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique to Brazil when it struck submerged rocks some 300 feet from shore and sank between two reefs. More than half of the enslaved people were killed, and those who survived were resold into slavery. “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), said in a press release. NMAAHC is one of six partners in the United States and Africa working on the Slave Wrecks Project, which identified the site through the captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José and other documents. Iron ballast to compensate for the lighter human cargo, shackles, and copper fastenings and sheathing have been recovered. To read more about great underwater discoveries, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

3,000-Year-Old Axes Found in Vietnam

DA NANG, VIETNAM—A team of archaeologists from the Vietnam Archaeology Institute uncovered five stone axes near the Ngu Hanh Son Mountains. The axes are believed to date to the Sa Huynh Culture. “The excavation…provides more details on the appearance of the Sa Huynh Culture and the early Cham in the area,” Ho Tan Tuan, director of Da Nang’s Heritage Management Center, told Vietnam News. Earlier excavations at the site have revealed coins, ceramics, and stone fragments from the Sa Huynh Culture and the Cham. Coins dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suggest that Chinese traders eventually did business in the region. To read more about archaeology in Southeast Asia, go to "Letter From Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."

Figurine of Roman God Mercury Unearthed in England

YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—A 2,000-year-old figurine of the Roman god Mercury was discovered in a field in north Yorkshire by a metal-detecting enthusiast. “Mercury was the god of commerce and so merchants would sprinkle their heads and merchandise with water from Mercury’s well, near the Porta Capena [in Rome], to appeal to the god for luck in their endeavors,” Rebecca Griffiths, the Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the York Museums Trust, told Culture 24. The worn copper alloy figurine has lost the wings to its cap. To read about a spectacular piece of Roman-era sculpture found in England, go to "Artifact: Sculpture of an Eagle Carrying a Snake."

Monday, June 01

Cemetery Unearthed at Medieval Priory

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A cemetery at Littlemore Priory in Oxford has been excavated ahead of the construction of a new hotel. “Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns, and prioresses. Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible,” Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services told Discovery News. Among the dead was a woman who had been buried face down. “This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins,” Murray said. She may have been one of the nuns Cardinal Wolsey accused of immoral behavior when he closed the convent in 1525. Other burials included a stillborn baby, two children who had developmental dysplasia of the hip, someone who may have had leprosy, and another individual who had suffered blunt-force trauma to the skull. These individuals may have been cared for by the nuns of the priory. To read more about archaeology in England, see "The Kings of Kent."

Bulgarian Police Recover Looted Krater

SUSAM, BULGARIA—A Thracian krater, or vessel made for mixing water and wine, was recovered by Bulgarian police officers from the car of a 33-year-old man accused of treasure hunting. The rare krater dates to the fifth century B.C. “Over the centuries, the baked clay has been severely cracked, and a botched attempt at restoration [of the vessel] appears to have been made,” archaeological consultants to the Bulgarian police told Archaeology in Bulgaria. The vessel is thought to have been taken from the burial of a Thracian aristocrat. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Prehistoric Cemetery Excavated in Northwest China

MOGOU, CHINA—An article in Chinese Cultural Relics describes a 4,000-year-old cemetery made up of hundreds of tombs that has been excavated by a team from the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Northwest University Silk Road Heritage Preservation and Archaeology Research Center near the village of Mogou in northwestern China. Live Science reports that the remains of sacrificed humans were found in some of the tombs, and some held the remains of entire families. There were also small chambers where finely made pottery, decorated with incised designs, had been placed near the tombs’ occupants. Jewelry and weapons such as bronze sabers, stone mace heads, axes, daggers, and knives were also recovered. Artifacts known as bone divination lots suggest that the people, most of whom belonged to the Qijia culture, attempted to predict the future. Some of the tombs had been covered with mounds of sediment, perhaps to mark them. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."