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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 27

Medieval Jewish Graves Unearthed in Rome

ROME, ITALY—Haaretz reports that 38 graves were unearthed in a section of a medieval Jewish cemetery labeled on historic maps as the “Field of the Jews.” Located near Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, where Jews first arrived in the second century B.C., the cemetery was used from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. Pope Urban VIII decreed in 1625 that Jews should be buried in unmarked graves and ordered pre-existing tombstones to be destroyed. During the recent renovation of a palazzo courtyard, the excavators discovered a fragment of a tombstone with a few letters in Hebrew in a “layer of destruction” above the simple burials that helped make the identification. Archaeologist Daniela Rossi said that two gold rings were found on one woman’s fingers, and part of a scale was recovered from a man’s grave, “perhaps as a reference to his profession, or a sign that he was a just person,” Rossi said. The skeletons also exhibit signs of malnutrition, and a lack of protein in the diet, which may reflect the harsh conditions for Jews living in the medieval city. The remains will be reburied. To read about a Jewish section of Krakow, Poland, go to “Off the Grid.”

Mice May Have Lived With Humans Long Before Farming

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—Lior Weissbrod of the University of Haifa and Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis examined 272 mouse molars from 14 archaeological sites in Israel dating to between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago, according to a report in Gizmodo. They identified the long-tailed house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus) and its wild relative the short-tailed Macedonian mouse (Mus macedonicus) among the remains, and compared the size of the populations to those of mice living among today’s mobile Maasai herders. The study suggests that the house mouse first appeared in hunter-gatherer settlements some 15,000 years ago, and their populations rose and fell based upon how often the people moved to new locations. “After the initial pulse of establishment of house mice in sedentary human settlements of the early Natufian period, there is a return of the ‘wild’ mouse with displacement of the house mouse … during a short phase when humans reverted back to mobility,” Weissbrod explained. The researchers added that house mice made up 80 percent of the mouse population at the onset of farming in the Neolithic period. Weissbrod thinks the house mice may have had flexible dietary needs, and may have been more agile, making them better able to cope with the stress of living with humans. For more on hunter-gatherers, go to “The First Casus Belli.”

3,800-Year-Old Intact Tomb Found in Egypt

ASWAN, EGYPT—According to a report in Ahram Online, an intact tomb dating to the 12th Dynasty has been discovered in the necropolis at Qubbet El-Hawa by the Spanish Archaeological Mission. Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano of the University of Jaen said that the tomb’s mummy, covered with polychrome cartonnage, collars, and a mask, is well preserved. The tomb also contained pottery, wooden models representing funerary boats and scenes of daily life, and an outer and inner coffin, both made of cedar. Inscriptions on the coffins identify the deceased as Shemai, son of Satethotep and Khema, the governor of Elephantine under Amenemhat II. Shemai’s eldest brother, Sarenput II, also served as governor of Elephantine, under the rule of Senwosret II and Senwosret III. The burials of 14 members of this ruling family had previously been found in Qubbet El-Hawa. For more on archaeology in Egypt, go to “A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet.”

Friday, March 24

Neolithic Rock Art Found in Egypt

BONN, GERMANY—According to a report in Live Science, an image dating to Egypt’s Neolithic period was found pecked into a rock on Qubbet el-Hawa, a hill along a shallow stretch of the Nile River, during an archaeological survey of the area. Egyptologist Ludwig Morenz of the University of Bonn said that the 6,000-year-old image depicts a hunter with a bow, an ostrich, and a dancer wearing an ostrich mask. He pointed out that scholars were unaware of mask use during Egypt’s Neolithic period, and thinks the mask might have served a ritual purpose. In later Egyptian history, after the pharaohs united the country around 3100 B.C., during which Qubbet el-Hawa eventually became a necropolis for the city of Elephantine, masks were reserved for the dead. “This archaeological area is about a millennium older than we knew before,” Morenz concluded. For more on archaeology in Egypt, go to “The Great Parallelogram.”

Seventeenth-Century Ship Identified

POOLE, ENGLAND—After ten years of research and excavation, a seventeenth-century ship known as the Swash Channel Wreck has been identified as The Fame, an armed Dutch merchant vessel, by a team of scientists from Bournemouth University. BBC News reports that The Fame’s crew may have planned to stop in Poole on its way from Amsterdam to the West Indies when it foundered and broke up during a storm in 1631. Tree-ring dating of the Swash Channel Wreck’s timbers suggests that the wood in the hull came from trees cut down between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany. Historic records indicate that all 45 people on board The Fame, and its master, John Jacobson Botemaker, were rescued, but the ship became a danger to other ships navigating the channel. Its contents and cannon are thought to have been salvaged, though it is also possible that it had been traveling without any cargo. “Everything fits, although you can never be sure,” explained marine archaeologist Dave Parham. To read about the discovery of a long-lost shipwreck in Canadian waters, go to “Franklin’s Last Voyage.”

2,000-Year-Old Egyptian Shroud Rediscovered in Scotland

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a full-length mummy shroud has been found wrapped in brown paper in the collections of Scotland’s National Museums by Margaret Maitland, senior curator of ancient Mediterranean collections. It depicts the deceased as the god Osiris, and identifies him as the son of a Roman-era official named Montsuef, and his wife, Tanuat, both of whose deaths were recorded in 9 B.C. A curator’s note, placed in a Second World War service envelope, identified the contents of the parcel as an ancient Egyptian artifact from a tomb that was used for more than 1,000 years in what is now Luxor. Conservators humidified the shroud’s brittle linen fibers before beginning to unfold it, a process that took almost 24 hours. “Before we were able to unfold the textile, tantalizing glimpses of colorful painted details suggested that it might be a mummy shroud,” Maitland said, “but none of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it.” For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Thursday, March 23

New Thoughts on the Barbarian Invasion of Rome

CAMBRIDGE, UNIVERSITY—The Washington Post reports that Susanne Hakenbeck of the University of Cambridge analyzed the bones and teeth of some 200 people, buried in five different cemeteries in the Roman frontier region of Pannonia, in order to find out where they had been born and what sort of lifestyle they had led. Her team then compared the results of those fifth-century A.D. populations to populations from central Germany, where farmers are known to have lived, and to nomadic populations in Siberia and Mongolia. In each of the Pannonia cemeteries in the study, some of the people had been farmers, who ate a diet based on grains and other plants, while others were nomads, who ate a distinctive diet of meat, milk, and millet. Some of the nomads settled down later in life, and other settled farmers became nomadic. Hakenbeck suggests the changes in the people’s lives indicate that elite Roman accounts of the invasion of the nomadic Huns were inaccurate. “It wasn’t necessarily just a story of conflict, but more a story of cross-border exchanges, cross-border adaptability,” she said. Farmers living on the edge of the empire may have even the adopted the Huns’ practice of binding and shaping infants’ heads. To read more about Pannonia, go to “Off the Grid: Carnuntum.”

Alabaster Statue of Queen Tiye Discovered in Luxor

LUXOR, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that a well-preserved alabaster statue thought to represent Queen Tiye, wife of King Amenhotep III and grandmother of King Tutankhamun, was discovered by Egyptian and European archaeologists at the Amenhotep III funerary temple in Kom El-Hittan. The archaeologists, working under the umbrella of the German Archaeological Institute, were lifting the lower part of a statue of King Amenhotep III when the Queen Tiye statue appeared by its left leg. Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany described the statue as “unique and distinguished,” adding that it is the first alabaster statue of the queen to be unearthed. “All previous statues of her unearthed in the temple were carved of quartzite,” he said. To read about another discovery in Egypt, go to “World’s Oldest Dress.”

40-Ton Capstone Unearthed in Southern India

HYDERABAD, INDIA—According to report in the Deccan Chronicle, a 40-ton capstone has been unearthed at a megalithic burial site near the village of Neremetta. Such stones are thought to have been used to protect burials from predators. “We can safely say that this is the largest capstone found in South India and one of the largest in the country,” said D. Ramulu Naik, assistant director of the Telangana Archaeology and Museums Department. The stone measures 22 feet long, 13 feet wide, and two feet thick, and is thought to have been placed about 2,700 years ago. Naik also explained that the grave may have been dug near the capstone, and then filled with small stones. The giant stone could then have been rolled over the smaller stones or wooden logs. Or, it is possible that the grave was dug below the capstone. Arm bones and pottery were also found below a nearby menhir, or upright stone. For more on archaeology in India, go to “Letter from India: Living Heritage at RiskLiving Heritage at Risk.”

Rare Calusa Artifacts Found in Waterlogged Florida Midden

PINELAND, FLORIDA—News-Press reports that University of Florida archaeologists Karen Walker and William Marquardt have excavated a 1,000-year-old midden on southwestern Florida’s Pine Island, where there was a large Calusa town some 1,000 years ago. The midden was formed at a time when the water table was low. “Then it rose pretty quickly,” Marquardt said. “We think it rose quickly enough that it sealed in this deposit, so it created an anaerobic situation and preserved the material.” The team had to pump out the groundwater to retrieve pieces of rope, nets with shell weights, twine, pieces of worked wood, and seeds. The researchers, who were assisted by volunteers, also recovered the tiny shells of truncatella snails that lived along the high-tide line. “Finding these guys here tells us where the shoreline was a thousand years ago,” Marquardt explained. To read more about archaeology in Florida, go to “Letter from Florida: People of the White Earth." 

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