Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 28

Scientists Evaluate the Noses of Early Human Ancestors

KYOTO, JAPAN—It had been thought that shifting climate led to adaptive evolutionary changes in the nasal cavity of the genus Homo. To test this idea, Takeshi Nishimura of Kyoto University and his colleagues used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and 3-D models of the nasal passages of humans, chimpanzees, and macaques to evaluate how well their nasal passages conditioned inhaled air to the correct temperature and humidity for use by the lungs. The study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, found that non-human primates are better able to condition air, which flows horizontally through their nasal passages, while in humans, it flows upward and curves. But when the team made virtual modifications to the human nose so that its airflow would be horizontal, its air-conditioning performance did not improve. The scientists note that as human ancestors evolved flat faces, protruding external noses, and a short nasal cavity, the pharyngeal cavity lengthened to condition inhaled air for the lungs. Thus, the human high-nasal cavity may have evolved to compensate for other facial changes in the genus Homo. To read about the evolution of the throwing motion, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Dump Site for Roman Pottery Factory Found

NAPLES, ITALY—According to a report in Discovery News, Marco Giglio, Giovanni Borriello, and Stefano Iavarone of the University of Naples “L’Orientale” may have found a factory in the city of Cumae where cookware mentioned in the first-century Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria was made. Known as “Cumanae testae,” or “Cumanae patellae,” the pans, made in the city of Cumae, were said to be the best for making chicken stews. “We found a dump site filled with internal red-slip cookware fragments. The dump was used by a pottery factory. This shows for the first time the ‘Cumanae patellae’ were indeed produced in this city,” Giglio said. More than 50,000 fragments of high-quality lids, pots, and pans with the non-stick red coating were found in the first-century dump. “All the defective artifacts were dumped here. These pieces help us enormously to reconstruct the way the pottery was manufactured,” Giglio said. To read more about what ancient Roman dump sites can tell us, go to "Trash Talk."

Denisovan DNA Detected in Modern Populations in South Asia

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—Scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Harvard University compared genomic data for more than 250 modern human populations with DNA obtained from Denisovan fossils, a hominid group that diverged from the human family tree some 500,000 years ago. The data suggests that people living today in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and other parts of South Asia carry more Denisovan DNA than had been previously thought. Previous studies have shown that the highest concentrations of Denisovan DNA—as much as five percent—are found in people who are native to Australia, Papua New Guinea, and other parts of Oceana. The study also found that Denisovans and modern humans interbred as recently as 44,000 to 54,000 years ago. “We did not even know about this important group until just a few years ago, and our study yields some insights on where Denisovans fit into this story. This also shows some new paths of interest that computational biology can explore,” Sriram Sankararaman of UCLA said in a press release. To read more, go to "Denisovan DNA." 

Friday, March 25

Ancient Viruses Detected in Modern DNA

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—In a new genetic study of 2,500 people from around the world, biologists from the University of Michigan and Tufts University have found nineteen new pieces of DNA left in the genetic code by viruses that infected human ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. According to a University of Michigan press release, the team even found one stretch of DNA in about 50 of the people studied that contains the full genetic code for an entire virus, which might give scientists the tools to study an ancient viral epidemic. “These are remnants of ancient events that have not been fixed in the population as a whole, but rather happened in the ancestors of some people alive today,” said University of Michigan geneticist Jeffrey Kidd. To read more about ancient genetic studies, go to “Denisovan DNA.” 

Colonial Cannon Found in North Carolina

WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA—A construction crew working in front of Wilmington’s Federal Courthouse has uncovered a colonial-era cannon. Weighing up to 800 pounds, the weapon probably dates to between 1700 and 1750, says Chris Southerly of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Office of State Archaeology. “It’s been probably buried, maybe used as backfill or just an old cannon that was non-functional,” Southerly told Port City Daily. “More than likely it could have been off an armed vessel at the time. We have a lot of shipwrecks here in the vicinity, especially the Cape Fear River, that date from colonial times right on up to modern wrecks.” Archaeologists plan to conserve the cannon and search for maker’s marks that could help date it with more precision. To read more about colonial-era archaeology in America, go to “American Refugees.” 

"House of the Dead" Unearthed in the Emirates

ABU DHABI, UAE—At the site of a 7,500-year-old village on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a team of archaeologists has unearthed a collapsed stone house that was subsequently converted into a burial chamber. The team found human remains inside the structure, which may be the earliest example of stone architecture found in the Persian Gulf. “This partial skeleton was inserted into one of the already semi-collapsed rooms of the house, indicating that the structure had originally been used as a house for the living, and then later as a ‘house for the dead’,” Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority director Mohammed Al Neyadi told the National. To read more about excavations in the Persian Gulf, go to “Archaeology Island.” 

Christian Symbol Identified on Roman Pottery

LONDON, ENGLAND—Archaeologists reexamining artifacts unearthed in a 1970 excavation in London’s Brentford neighborhood have discovered a fourth-century piece of pottery decorated with a Christian symbol. Culture 24 reports that the sherd was unearthed with a number of other artifacts when the line of a Roman road was discovered running between ancient Londinium and the west of Britain. Close examination of the sherd showed it bears a monogram of first two letters of the Greek Khristos (Christ). “Christian symbols from the Roman period are rare, especially from sites within Londinium’s surrounding Hinterland,” says archaeologist Adam Corsini of the Museum of London. “There are only a few examples within our collections relating to London.” To read about another rare Roman artifact unearthed in London, go to “Artifact: Roman Eagle Sculpture.” 

Thursday, March 24

Shakespeare’s Skull Might Be Missing

STRATFORD, ENGLAND—Archaeologists carrying out a ground-penetrating radar survey of Shakespeare’s grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford have discovered that the playwright’s skull is likely missing, reports the BBC. The radar data show that there was a major repair to the head end of Shakespeare’s grave, which lends new support to a previously dismissed 1879 magazine story claiming that trophy hunters stole his skull. "We have Shakespeare's burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone's come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare,” said Staffordshire University archaeologist Kevin Colls. "It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all." The survey also revealed that Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and his other relatives were buried in shallow graves beneath the church’s floor. To read more about archaeology in England’s medieval churches, go to “The Writing on the Church Wall.” 

New Fossils Expand Range of Australopithecus

KYOTO, JAPAN—Paleontologists have found Australopithecus afarensis fossils in a part of Kenya that suggest that the early hominin species lived much farther east then previously believed. Fossilized teeth and a forearm bone from an adult male and two infants were found in an area eroded by the Kantis River in Ongata-Rongai, a settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi. These are the first A. afarensis fossils to be found east of the Great Rift Valley. The species is thought to have lived between 3.7 and 3 million years ago, based on fossils such as “Lucy,” found in Ethiopia. Stable isotope analysis has shown that the Kantis area was humid with a plain-like environment and fewer trees than the areas where A. afarensis fossils have previously been found. "The hominid must have discovered suitable habitats in the Kenyan highlands,” says Masato Nakatsukasa of Kyoto University in a press release. “It seems that A. afarensis was good at adapting to varying environments.” For more, go to “Ardipithecus: Ape or Ancestor?

Viking Hoard Conserved in Scotland

GALLOWAY, SCOTLAND—Conservators have finished work on artifacts from a metal vessel containing the so-called Galloway Viking Hoard, discovered in 2014, reports the BBC. Dating to the ninth or tenth century A.D., the lidded pot held artifacts that Vikings likely looted from monasteries in England and Ireland. They include silver Anglo-Saxon and Irish brooches, a gold ingot, and even silk from Byzantium. ”The complexity of the material in the hoard raises more questions than it answers, and like all the best archaeology, this find doesn't give any easy answers," said National Museums Scotland archaeologist Stuart Campbell. “Questions about the motivations and cultural identity of the individuals who buried it will occupy scholars and researchers for years to come." Officials expect the hoard to go to a Scottish museum. To read more about the history of the Vikings in the British Isles, go to “The Vikings in Ireland.”

U.S. Navy Tugboat Discovered Off San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The USS Conestoga, a U.S. Navy tugboat, has been discovered in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, 95 years after it sank with 56 officers and sailors aboard, according to an announcement from NOAA and the U.S. Navy. "After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga's disappearance no longer is a mystery," said Manson Brown, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator. The boat departed the Golden Gate on March 25, 1921, en route to American Samoa via Hawaii. When it failed to reach Pearl Harbor, a large-scale search was mounted in its vicinity. Later, when one of its lifeboats was found off the coast of Mexico, a search was undertaken there as well. In 2009, a likely shipwreck was identified several miles off Southeast Farallon Island under 189 feet of water, and in October 2015, it was confirmed to be the Conestoga. When the ship set out, it faced increasing wind speeds and high waves. Based on the location and orientation of the wreck, it appears that the crew was attempting to take shelter in a protected cove when it sank. For more, go to “History's 10 Greatest Wrecks..."