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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, August 22

Ireland’s Iron-Age Eating Habits Studied

CORK, IRELAND—The Irish Times reports that an international team of researchers collected data on animal bones and seeds from archaeological digs across southeast Ireland, and analyzed pollen extracted from a sediment core taken from a lake in Kilkenny, to learn what people ate between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago. “Cattle and pigs provided dairy and meat, barley was a staple, and we also have evidence of a variety of wheats, including spelt, emmer, and naked wheat,” said Katharina Becker of University College Cork. The researchers partnered with baker Declan Ryan to attempt to recreate baked products of Ireland's Iron Age. Since houses from the period do not contain recognizable hearths, Becker suggests that people may have gathered at boiling pits to eat. She speculates that the Iron-Age diet was probably plant-based, with meat and dairy foods served on special occasions. For more, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."

Unusual Stone Slabs Unearthed at Ness of Brodgar

ORKNEY, SCOTLAND—A structure constructed of stone slabs up to 13 feet long has been found beneath a huge midden at the Ness of Brodgar by a team led by researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. According to a report in BBC News, archaeologists think the building, which measures some 33 feet wide, may have been the first structure at the site. Its unusual stones have rounded edges and may have been brought from another site and reused. “Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that predates the main Ness site. It is a bit of a mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work,” said site director Nick Card. Most of the other structures at the Ness of Brodgar were made of pieces of flagstone and may also have had slate roofs. The site sits between two Neolithic monuments, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, and is thought to have served as a gathering place for more than 1,000 years. To read in-depth about this site, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

New Technique Reveals Images in a Fragile Codex

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Live Science reports that David Howell of the Bodleian Libraries and colleagues have discovered pictographic scenes under the layer of gesso that covers Codex Selden, a 20-page document created in southern Mexico in the sixteenth century from a long strip of deer hide. They used a technique known as hyperspectral imaging to reveal the pictures beneath the layer of chalk and plaster, which presumably was applied to the document to prepare it for reuse. The researchers analyzed seven pages of the codex—one of only 20 such texts produced in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans to have survived—and found glyphs and figures formed with red, yellow, and orange organic paints. Some of the images may record genealogical information, including two figures thought to represent siblings, since they are connected with a red umbilical cord. Other figures depict people walking with sticks or spears, and some of the female figures have red hair or headdresses. The name of one individual preserved in Codex Selden resembles that of an ancestral figure recorded in other codices, but more research is needed into the possibility that the documents refer to the same person. For more, go to "The Maya Codices."

Friday, August 19

Possible Prehistoric Settlement Unearthed on Scottish Island

IONA, SCOTLAND—The Press and Journal reports that a site believed to have been a prehistoric settlement has been unearthed on the island of Iona. The island is best known for the monastery founded in the sixth century A.D. by the monk Columba, who took refuge there after being exiled from his native Ireland. The new discoveries, made during a survey prior to building an extension of the island’s primary school, include pottery, flints, and other materials that may date back as far as 2,500 years. The excavation, which was led by Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology, also unearthed an extension to the island’s medieval wall. “What is most exciting to me is that the lines of the property that exist now are very similar to the property lines that existed more than 2,000 years ago,” said Ellis. To read in-depth about archaeology in Scotland, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Ötzi the Iceman’s Clothing Analyzed

BOLZANO, ITALY—Researchers have used genetic analysis to determine which animals were used to make the clothes worn by Ötzi the Iceman, according to a report in Live Science. The results show that Ötzi, who died 5,300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps on the border of Austria and Italy and whose well-preserved mummy was discovered by hikers in 1991, wore an outfit fashioned from a range of animals likely selected for the different properties of their skin or fur. His shoes were made from hardy cattle leather, his leggings from more supple goatskin. His coat was made from sheep, for warmth, his hat from brown bear, and his quiver from deer. The researchers believe the evidence indicates that Ötzi obtained at least some of his garments or the material to make them via trade. “It is probable that the Iceman was not a hermit,” said Niall O’Sullivan of the University College Dublin in Ireland and the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman. “He likely traded furs or domestic animals.” To read more about Ötzi, go to “Heart Attack of the Mummies.”

Bronze Age Grave Discovered in Siberia

  ABAKAN, RUSSIA—In the Russian republic of Khakassia in southern Siberia, archaeologists excavating a Bronze Age cemetery have unearthed the grave of a woman who was buried with an unusual number of artifacts. The Siberian Times reports that the woman, who was accompanied by the remains of a child, lived sometime between 2500 and 1800 B.C., and was likely a person of high status. She was buried with a bronze knife, some 100 animal teeth pendants, and a dress decorated with about 1,500 beads. The excavation director, Andrey Polyakov, was particularly excited by the discovery of a ceramic incense burner in the grave, which was decorated with sun motifs that are similar to those found on rock art in the region. "Its importance is hard to overestimate," says Polyakov. "All such images previously discovered had been found only on cliffs or separate stones. Now there is the prospect to find out when they were made." To read more about archaeology in the area, go to "Letter From Siberia: Fortress of Solitude."

Thursday, August 18

Urban Rabbit Farm Found at Teotihuacán

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—Rabbits were an important commodity in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán, according to a report in New Scientist. The city reached its height from the first century A.D. through 550 A.D. and had around 100,000 residents, making it the largest urban area in the Americas at the time. Andrew Somerville of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues discovered an apartment complex filled with rabbit bones and obsidian knives. The presence of baby rabbit remains suggests the animals were being bred and raised onsite, and a stone rabbit sculpture atop a courtyard temple indicates the residents specialized in rabbits. Further evidence that the rabbits were domesticated came from isotopic analysis of their bones, which showed that up to three-quarters of their diet came from crops grown by people. “This study does a great job of showing the innovations in this urban society for cultivating their own protein sources,” said David Carballo, an archaeologist at Boston University, who was not involved in the study. “It gives you a good idea of what regular folks were up to in this city.” To read about another discovery at Teotihuacán, go to “Mythological Mercury Pool.”

“Magic” Shoe Discovered inside University Wall

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Maintenance work at Cambridge University’s St. John’s College has revealed a 300-year-old shoe hidden inside the wall of a common room. According to the Cambridge News, the well-worn shoe was likely secreted inside the wall between a chimney and a window in order to prevent evil spirits from entering the room, which would have been part of the private residence of the college’s master. "Given its location, it is very likely that it was there to play a protective role for the master of the college,” says Richard Newman of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. “It may even have been one of his old shoes." The college plans to replace the shoe inside the wall together with a time capsule once work in the room is complete. To read more about protective rituals in England, go to “The Many Lives of an English Manor House.” 

Bronze Age Mausoleum Unearthed in Kazakhstan

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN—Archaeologists have unearthed a Bronze Age burial mound constructed of five walls in northern Kazakstan. "It's made from stone, earth, and fortified by slabs in the outer side," Saryarka Archaeological Institute researcher Viktor Novozhenov told Live Science. The height of the mausoleum's walls increases gradually the closer they are to the mound's center, which led some news outlets to compare the mausoleum to the step pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, Egypt. But Novozhenov points out that the mound was at most six feet tall, much smaller than the pyramid in Saqqara, which was built some 1,000 years earlier. Though the tomb had been looted, the team found late Bronze Age pottery as well as a bronze knife near its main chamber, which likely once held the remains of a chieftain or clan leader. To read more about Bronze Age archaeology on the Eurasian steppes, go to "Wolf Rites of Winter."

Early-19th-Century Shipwreck Identified in Lake Ontario

ALBANY, NEW YORK—The AP reports that a wreck recently discovered in Lake Ontario is believed to be the second-oldest ship ever found in the Great Lakes. The 53-foot-long single-masted sloop, called the Washington, was carrying cargo including goods from India when it set out from Kingston, Ontario, for Niagara, Ontario, on November 6, 1803. It ran into a fierce storm and sank, killing all on board, including at least three crewmembers and two merchants. Explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens found the wreck in deep water off Oswego, New York, where pieces of wreckage reportedly washed ashore the day after the Washington sank. They confirmed the ship was the Washington based on footage from a remotely operated vehicle. The discovery of the wreck will help historians learn more about the design and construction of sloops used on the Great Lakes in the early nineteenth century. “Every shipwreck offers something different that adds to our knowledge base,” said Carrie Sowden, archaeological director at the National Museum of the Great Lakes, which sponsored the exploration. The oldest ship to sink in the Great Lakes was the HMS Ontario, a British warship that sank in Lake Ontario in 1780. For more about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”