Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, June 30

Viking Castle Update From Denmark

KØGE, DENMARK—Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen thinks that a fire was deliberately set 1,000 years ago at the Viking castle Vallø Borgring, and has requested the assistance of police dogs and a fire safety investigator. “The outer posts of the east gate are completely charred, and there are signs of burning on the inside,” he told The Copenhagen Post. The unfinished structure, built on a man-made plateau, is one of five known ring fortresses in Denmark, and is thought to have been the last one built by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. “Our theory right now is that other powerful men in the country attacked the castle and set fire to the gates,” Ulriksen added. For more, go to "Bluetooth's Fortress."

Medieval Manor Excavated in Southwest England

DEVON, ENGLAND—A medieval manor known as North Hall is being excavated in the village of Widecombe in southwest England. A ditch at the edge of the site is thought to have been a moat that was coupled with an earthwork to defend the house. “We think it was attacked at least twice in the Middle Ages by brigands on the moor,” Mike Nendick, Dartmoor National Park spokesperson, told The Plymouth Herald. The team of archaeologists and volunteers has also recovered cobbles, a section of wall, flag stones, pottery, post holes, palisades, and wooden beam slots. “The people who lived here would have been powerful as it would have been a really high-status site,” he explained. For more, go to "The Many Lives of an English Manor House."

Did Megalithic Tombs Double as Telescopes?

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, prehistoric peoples living in what is now Western Europe may have built megalithic tombs as tools for observing the night sky and tracking the movements of the stars. “Different regions had their own traditions and architectural styles, but they are all variations on a theme,” said Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. Spending the night inside these structures may have been part of a rite of passage that included watching the sky at dusk and dawn. In particular, passage graves, which have a large chamber accessed through a long, narrow entry tunnel, may have helped early astronomers see faint stars on the horizon. “The entrance creates an aperture as large as ten degrees through which your naked-eye view is restricted,” Brown said. Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David added that knowing the positions of the stars at specific times of the year may have helped people time seasonal migrations. For more, go to "An Eye on Venus."

Fireplaces Suggest Modern Humans Occupied Hobbits’ Cave

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA—Scientists have found evidence of fireplaces that were in use between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago in Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores. The cave is known as the site where the remains of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive hominin dubbed the “hobbit,” were discovered in 2003. It had been thought that Homo floresiensis died out around 12,000 years ago, but recent research suggests that the species may have gone extinct some 50,000 years ago. “This new evidence for fire at the site fits in with the chronology of modern humans moving through Southeast Asia and into Australia around 50,000 years ago,” Mike Morely of the University of Wollongong told The Australian. No evidence of the use of fire by Homo floresiensis over a period of about 130,000 years has been found in the cave, so scientists think the hearths were made by modern humans. “The gap’s narrowing between the two populations,” Morely explained. “We’ve got them in the same place and we’ve got less than 10,000 years between them.” If the two species did come in contact, it could help explain the demise of Homo floresiensis. For more, go to "New Flores Fossils May Be Hobbit Ancestors."

Wednesday, June 29

Holocaust Escape Tunnel Mapped in Lithuania

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA—Researchers from Israel, Lithuania, the United States, and Canada used electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to map the location of the 115-foot-long escape tunnel dug in the Ponar forest by Jewish prisoners of the Nazis. The prisoners, known as the “burning brigade,” were moved from the Stutthof concentration camp in 1943 to the Ponar forest execution site, where they were forced to open mass graves of Lithuanian and Polish Jews and burn the bodies in order to hide evidence from the Allies. At night, the prisoners, who were kept in an execution pit, dug the tunnel with their hands and spoons. According to a report in Live Science, on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover that year, about 40 of the prisoners attempted to escape through the tunnel. Only 11 of them survived World War II. “The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life,” said archaeologist Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority. For more, go to "World War II Tunnels Reopened in Dover."

Butchered Mammoth Unearthed Near Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—The nearly complete remains of a mammoth, estimated to have lived between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, were discovered near the village of Tultepec by utility workers. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History say that the site was once a shallow lake where mammoths could have gotten stuck. The bones of the adult animal were scattered, suggesting that it had been partially butchered by humans, although its skull and tusks are intact. Archaeologist Luis Cordoba told Agence France-Presse that the remains of more than 50 mammoths have been discovered in the region around Mexico City. 

New Thoughts on Borneo’s “Deep Skull”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—“Deep Skull,” a 37,000-year-old cranium discovered in Niah Cave on the island of Borneo, has been examined by Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales. When the skull was first studied after its discovery in 1958, researchers concluded that it belonged to an adolescent male who was closely related to modern indigenous Australians. That interpretation became part of a hypothesis postulating that Borneo’s first inhabitants were replaced by migrating farmers from southern China. According to the International Business Times, Curnoe suggests the skull belonged to an older woman and that it “more closely resembles people today from more northerly parts of Southeast Asia.” In this view, the remains could represent the ancestors of Borneo’s modern indigenous population. In this scenario, the island’s indigenous people adopted farming some 3,000 years ago. For more, go to "Letter from Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."

Tuesday, June 28

Lifeguard Finds Medieval Oil Lamp

ASHEKELON, ISRAEL—Lifeguard Meir Amsik was out for his regular run on a beach at Tel Ashkelon National Park when he discovered a clay oil lamp eroding out of a costal cliff. After showing it to a colleague, the two decided to contact the Israel Antiquities Authority and alert specialists to the find. Archaeologist Sa’ar Ganor then examined the artifact and dated it to the twelfth century A.D., the Crusader Period. “Finding such a treasure is very exciting,” Amsik told the Jerusalem Post. “Just to feel like a part of history fulfills a sense of appreciation for what was here before me, and makes me feels like a link in the chain.” To read about the discovery of coins in Israel dating to the time of the Bar-Kokhba rebellion, go to “Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel.”

Medieval Weapons Foundry Discovered in Siberia

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA—Beneath a road used by tourists traveling to the popular destination of Lake Baikal, archaeologists have discovered a medieval forge dating to about A.D. 1000. Led by Irkutsk National Research Technical University's Artur Kharinsky, members of the team first noticed the site when they spotted slag on the surface of the road. The Siberian Times reports that remote sensing at the spot showed the presence of two underground structures, which after excavation were found to be stone furnaces that would have been used to smelt iron ore for knives and arrowheads. "Judging by the amount of iron, which can be produced with such forges, the locals managed not only to meet the needs of their own territory, but also to export production to neighboring areas," says Kharinsky. It's likely the forge was used by the medieval Turkic-speaking Kurykan people, who were know for their blacksmithing abilities. To read more about medieval-era archaeology in Siberia, go to “Fortress of Solitude.”

Possible Gateway to Pan Sanctuary Discovered

  HAIFA, ISRAEL—LiveScience reports that recent excavations at the Greco-Roman city of Hippos near the Sea of Galilee may shed light on the discovery last year of a remarkable bronze mask depicting the half-man half-goat god Pan. University of Haifa archaeologist Michael Eisenberg led a team that unearthed a six-foot-tall Roman gate near a stone building where the mask was found, leading him to speculate that the gate might have led to a sanctuary dedicated to Pan. "The mask, and now the gate in which it was embedded, are continuing to fire our imaginations," Eisenberg says. "The worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices and ecstatic rituals, including nudity and sex. This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings." The possible sanctuary was located near the city gates and was constructed sometime during the reign of Hadrian, who was emperor from A.D. 117 to A.D. 138. To read more about Roman cults, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."