Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, May 23

Coffins Discovered at Scottish School

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—The outlines of at least nine coffins have been discovered on the grounds of a primary school in the town of Leith, north of Edinburgh. The discovery was made as part of an excavation in advance of new building construction, which also turned up a lone skeleton earlier this year. “These excavations have unearthed what appears to be a complex cemetery thought to date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries,” John Lawson, an archaeologist with the City of Edinburgh Council, said in a report in the Edinburgh Evening News, “containing at least nine graves including adults and young children buried in coffins.” For more on archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Industrial Revolution-Era Burials Found In England

LEEDS, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of a future shopping center in Leeds have revealed the burials of at least 28 people, mainly children, who died between 1797 and 1848. The Yorkshire Evening Post reports that analysis of the remains shows that the people were in extremely poor health and some may have possibly died during an 1832 cholera outbreak. Jane Richardson of Archaeological Services WYAS, who led the research, says the condition of the remains confirms that living conditions in the city were particularly grim for the lower classes. “What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us,” said Richardson. “It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent." Bioarchaeologists found that at least nine of the children suffered from diseases such as rickets and scurvy. After being studied, the remains are slated to be reburied. To read more about nineteenth-century England, go to “The Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”     

Egyptian Spells Deciphered

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Two newly deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to the third century A.D. contain spells that deal with love and control, according to a report from Discovery News. The papyri, which were written in Greek, were discovered as part of a larger cache more than 100 years ago in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and have been gradually studied and translated since then. One spell instructs the spell caster to burn a number of offerings in a bathhouse and write a spell on its walls calling on the gods to “burn the heart” of a woman who has withheld her love. The other, designed to force a man to obey the caster’s every command, instructs the caster to engrave a series of magical words onto a copper plaque and then affix it to something the man wears, such as a sandal. The spells were translated by Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, and both were written so the caster could insert a target of their choice. For more, go to “The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum.”

Castle Unearthed In Wales

CAERNARFON, WALES—Archaeologists in northern Wales have unearthed the remains of a small medieval castle, reports the North Wales Chronicle. A team lead by Jane Kenny of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust spent two years working at the site, known as Han Gastell, which had previously been supposed to be an Iron Age hillfort. But instead of prehistoric fortifications, the team discovered the remains of a defended enclosure dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Kenney speculates that it was probably built by a minor noble and then occupied by no more than four generations before being abandoned. Post holes at the site indicated that the castle once had a large timber hall or tower and the discovery of a large amount of metal slag showed it had its own blacksmithy. The team also discovered decorative bronze and brass objects as well as an iron knife. To read more about archaeology in the area, go to “Letter From Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”  

Friday, May 20

U.S. Returns Christopher Columbus Letter to Italy

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In 1493, after his initial voyage, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, which was reprinted and distributed to spread information about the New World. According to a report in Live Science, a joint American-Italian investigation team has determined that one of the 80 surviving copies of the letter, donated to the Library of Congress, had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, where a forgery had been left in its place. The forged document, in addition to having mismatched stitching, lacked an original Riccardiana Library stamp. Investigators also found that bleach had been used to remove the Riccardiana Library’s stamp from the letter in the Library of Congress. “We are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware Charles M. Oberly III said in a statement. How the theft took place is still under investigation. To read about a forensic study of a map Columbus is believed to have consulted, go to "Reading the Invisible Ink." 

Angkor-Era Kiln Excavated in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—According to The Cambodia Daily, Phon Kaseka, director of archaeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, is leading the excavation of one of 69 known kiln sites near Cheung Ek Lake that produced water jugs, cooking pots, vases, boxes, and ritual objects. During the wet season, this kiln would have been close to the edge of the lake, where boats could have picked up the pots for distribution throughout the Angkorian Empire. The earliest kilns in the area are thought to date to the fifth century. The kiln currently under excavation may date to between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. After the thirteenth century, local production is thought to have tapered off. Fewer than ten of the 69 kiln sites are intact, but economic development in the area will soon destroy all of them. “What we don’t know about, and what has probably been largely destroyed through development by now, is about inhabitants in the Phnom Penh area during the Angkorian period,” commented Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. To read more, go to "Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape."

Artifacts Mark the Spot of Possible First San Antonio Mission

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—City archaeologist Kay Hindes says that there were two missions before the Alamo, which was built by Spanish missionaries in 1724. “There were three locations of Mission San Antonio de Valero,” she said in a News 4 San Antonio report. The first site dates to 1718 and was only in use for about a year. Scholars aren’t sure why the mission was moved to the second location, but when a hurricane hit the region in 1724, the mission moved to the current site of the Alamo. Hindes has recovered pottery, beads, and nails at what she thinks was the mission’s first location. “I looked down and started seeing the metal and I literally, really, I just had to sit down on the ground because I was like ‘This is too incredible,’” she said. To read more about the archaeology of the Southwest, go to "Searching for the Comanche Empire."

Thursday, May 19

Genetic Study May Track Dogs’ Travels With Humans

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A genetic study of a sexually transmitted canine cancer, led by Elizabeth Murchison of the University of Cambridge, has offered clues to how dogs may have traveled around the world with their humans. (The disease is believed to have originated in a single dog some 11,000 years ago.) Scientists analyzed the DNA of 449 tumors taken from modern dogs in 39 countries. BBC News reports that at least five times over the history of the disease, mitochondrial DNA from the tumor was traded with its host, creating five major ancestral groups for the tumors that exist today. Additional mutations allowed the scientists to trace the tumor’s family tree. “We were able to estimate the time since the mitochondrial transfer events, by counting the number of mutations. And one of them really seems to just track around maritime trade routes, in the last few hundred years. We found it along the coast of West Africa, in the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, India, and some parts of southern Europe. You can just imagine those dogs on boats, which must have taken that tumor around with them,” Murchison said. To read about dogs in the archaeological record, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Port Arthur Prison Yard Yields Convicts' Artifacts

PORT ARTHUR, AUSTRALIA—Excavation of the exercise yard at the Port Arthur penitentiary building, a World Heritage site in Tasmania, has yielded artifacts related to the convicts’ leisure time. “The key thing about this space was keeping the convict population healthy; as if they are healthy then they can work,” Tuffin told ABC News Australia. According to the report, the yards at first had shelters with fireplaces for the men. Then, in the 1860s, toilets and washing areas were added. “You don’t normally get that form of hygiene and treating waste until the 1880s,” Tuffin explained. The 1,600 artifacts recovered from the site include square and circular gambling tokens made of lead, slate, and ceramic; buttons; and clay pipes. Gambling was not allowed in the prison, so the tokens were probably smuggled into the yard. Many of the clay pipe stems bear the teeth marks of their owners. One pipe bowl features images of Napoleon and Wellington and may have been made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. To read more about prisoners on Tasmania, go to "Convict Mothers."

Painted Medieval Church Walls Discovered in Northern Sudan

WARSAW, POLAND—A team from the Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw is excavating the Church of Raphael, part of a royal complex of buildings at the site of Dongola, the capital of Makuria—a medieval kingdom located in what is now northern Sudan. The church’s pulpit was made with hieroglyph-inscribed granite blocks repurposed from a pharaonic temple. Images of archangels, angels, priests, saints, and officials of the Nubian kingdom were painted on smooth lime wall plaster with expensive pigments. Each person depicted in the paintings was also identified and described. One of the inscriptions records a meeting at the church attended by the bishops of Makuria, the archbishop of Dongola, and the king. “The church was founded by King Joannes. Until now we did not know much about him. The inscription proves that he was an important person in the hierarchy of the church and had considerable political influence,” archaeologist Wlodzimierz Godlewski said in a Science & Scholarship in Poland report. For more, go to "Miniature Pyramids of Sudan."

16th-Century Altar Cloth May Have Been Queen’s Skirt Panel

HEREFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—Experts from Historic Royal Palaces examined a richly embroidered altar cloth kept in a glass case at St. Faith’s Church, Bacton, and determined that it dates to the late sixteenth century. Tradition has associated the cloth with Bacton native Blanche Parry, who had a monument commemorating her years of loyal service to the Queen erected at the church. Made from cloth of silver, the fabric has shaped seams at the back that suggest it may have been a skirt panel in a court dress at one time. During the Tudor period, sumptuary law limited the wearing of cloth of silver to the royalty and the highest echelons of the aristocracy. Historians have not found any documentation linking the altar cloth to Elizabeth I, but it is similar to the garment worn by the Queen in the “Rainbow Portrait,” and may have been given to Parry as a gift. “This is an incredible find. Items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of,” Tracy Borman, joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said in a BBC News report. To read about artifacts linked to another associate of Queen Elizabeth, go to "Treasures of Rathfarnham Castle."