Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, February 23

Skeletons Buried Hand in Hand Excavated in London

LONDON, ENGLAND—The skeletons of two men who appear to have been interred hand in hand were excavated from a plague burial ground in London during the construction of the Crossrail tunnel, according to a report from The Guardian. The men are thought to have been in their 40s and were buried in the early fifteenth century in a carefully dug double grave. They were placed in identical positions, with their heads angled to the right, and the left hand of one man clasping the right hand of the other. “One possible interpretation is that they were related in some way, for example by blood or marriage,” said archaeologist Sam Pfizenmaier, who led the excavation, noting that the positioning of their hands could be accidental. Both men are thought to have died in an outbreak of bubonic plague and were buried in the cemetery in Smithfield that opened in 1348 and ultimately held more than 50,000 bodies. DNA of several of the skeletons excavated from the cemetery has revealed exposure to Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. To read about another discovery as part of the Crossrail project, go to “A Tale of Two Railroads.”

WWII Bomb Defused in Greek City

THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Soldiers recently defused a World War II bomb in Greece’s second-largest city after evacuating tens of thousands of people from the area, according to a report from Agence France-Presse. The bomb was discovered during roadwork near a gas station. It took several hours to defuse the five-foot-long bomb, which was found to contain 375 pounds of explosives. According to Army chief of staff Nikos Phanios, the American-made bomb’s firing mechanism “was still in a very good shape, and this was what had us worried.” The bomb is thought to have been dropped by a British place as part of a campaign of strikes on the city’s railway station and port in 1943. Around 70,000 people were evacuated from a one-mile radius around the site before the bomb was defused. “A bomb of this size has never been found in an area this densely populated” in Greece, said regional security chief Apostolos Tzitzikostas. For more on handling unexploded ordnance from World War II, go to “Letter from the Marshall Islands: Defuzing the Past.”

Crouched Medieval Burials Found in Siberia

YAMAL PENINSULA, RUSSIA—Unusual burials of three women and a man dating to the eleventh century have been discovered in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, according to a report from The Siberian Times. All four bodies were found in a crouched position, which archaeologist Andrey Plekhanov said indicates they may have been ritually buried or possibly even sacrificed. All four also suffered from serious diseases or starvation, and the man was set on fire after death, a phenomenon not previously recorded in the area. “We can be sure that he did not die in the fire,” said Plekhanov. “His dead body was set to fire, but not a very strong one. His bones remained almost intact, the fire damage[d] mostly the soft tissues.” Among the artifacts found with the bodies were a bronze bracelet with a bear image, a knife with a bronze handle, a tanning scraper, bronze and silver pendants, a ring, and a facial mask made of animal skin. Fragments of pottery, possibly from the funeral meal, were also found. To read about another recent discovery in the area, go to “Siberian William Tell.”

Wednesday, February 22

Chaco Canyon’s Matrilineal Dynasty

  CHACO CANYON, NEW MEXICO—New research shows that a matrilineal dynasty may have controlled Pueblo Bonito, one of the massive masonry villages at the Ancestral Puebloan site of Chaco Canyon, reports Live Science.  A team of archaeologists and geneticists recently reanalyzed an elaborate two-layered burial crypt at the site that had been previously excavated. Such burial arrangements are rare in Puebloan cultures and the crypt is thought to have held high-ranking members of Chacoan society, who were buried there from A.D. 800 to 1120, when the site was abandoned. At the bottom of this crypt lay the graves of two men who had been buried with thousands of turquoise beads and other prestigious objects. Above them, separated by a wooden floor, were the graves of 12 people thought to have descended from the two men. A genomic study of the remains showed that nine of the people in the crypt all had identical mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers, suggesting power was inherited at Chaco through the maternal line. "For the first time, we're saying that one kinship group controlled Pueblo Bonito for more than 300 years," said University of Virginia archaeologist Steve Plog, who co-led the study. "This is the best evidence of a social hierarchy in the ancient Southwest." To read about how Pueblo culture endured Spanish rule, go to “The First American Revolution.”

Japanese Internment Camp on Oahu Excavated

HONOLULU, HAWAII—Archaeologists are excavating an area of the Honouliuli National Monument where a Japanese internment and POW camp once stood, according to a report from NBC News. William Belcher, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, and his students aim to preserve the site and map its features. In one area, they are looking for underground concrete slabs where they believe the camp’s mess hall once stood. The camp was one of more than a dozen World War II–era internment sites, and was used to detain prominent local Japanese residents and to house prisoners of war. Since Japanese people made up some 40 percent of Hawaii’s population, and many worked on plantations, only a small portion were interred at the camp. To read in-depth about underwater archaeology of the attack on Pearl Harbor, go to “December 7, 1941.”

Ancient Children’s Footprints Uncovered in Egypt

  CAIRO, EGYPT—Children’s footprints dating back more than 3,000 years have been found at Pi-Ramesse, which was the Egyptian capital during the reign of Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.), according to a report from Seeker. The prints were found near rare painting fragments in a mortar pit measuring around 8 by 26 feet. According to Henning Franzmeier, field director of the Qantir-Piramesse project, the footprints measure around 6 to 6.5 inches, which corresponds to an age of three to five. It is unclear whether the footprints were left by more than one child. “The differences in size are not big enough for us to clearly differentiate,” said Franzmeier. “And they are also not so well preserved that we could distinguish so far any other features of the feet.” It is also unclear why the children would have been in the area. Further excavation in the area and analysis of the footprints will be carried out in the project’s next field season. To read about another discovery in Egypt, go to “World’s Oldest Dress.”

A Bronze Age Male Migration

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA—Science reports that a new DNA study shows males belonging to a Bronze Age culture now known as the Yamnaya had a transformative impact on the European population. Prior to the Yamnaya migration, many prehistoric Europeans were descended from Neolithic farmers who migrated to Europe from Anatolia beginning around 9,000 years ago. Some 4,000 years later, the Yamnaya, herders who had mastered horseback riding and were likely speakers of Indo-European, left the Eurasian steppe and moved west into central Europe. To investigate the ratio of men to women who participated in these two migrations, Stanford University geneticists used a new statistical method to compare DNA from 20 skeletons belonging to people who lived after the arrival of Neolithic farmers and 16 who lived just after the Yamnaya migration. They found that equal numbers of men and women took part in the Neolithic population movement, but that there were some 10 men for every woman who participated in the Yamnaya migration. The finding is consistent with the theory that the Yamnaya who moved west were largely horse-mounted male warriors. To read more about the study of prehistoric Indo-European languages, go to “Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European.” 

Tuesday, February 21

Kennewick Man Reburied

  SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The Seattle Times reports that after two decades of legal battles, the 9,000-year-old remains dubbed Kennewick Man by scientists and called the Ancient One by Native Americans have been reburied at an undisclosed site on the Columbia Plateau. Since being discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996, the remains have been claimed by tribes indigenous to the area, which pushed for the repatriation of the Ancient One even as his bones were being exhaustively studied by anthropologists. Last Friday, representatives of five tribes met with officials at Seattle's Burke Museum, where they took possession of the Ancient One's bones, as well as vials containing his DNA samples and a spear point that had been found lodged in his hip. All were buried on Saturday during a ceremony attended by more than 200 people. To read about the earliest people to arrive in North America, go to “America, in the Beginning.”

Colonial-Era Artifacts Uncovered in Australia

  NORTH PARRAMATTA, AUSTRALIA—An excavation in a suburb of Sydney has turned up evidence of the early decades after the arrival of Europeans in Australia, according to a report from ABC News. The site, in North Parramatta, was home to an early nineteenth-century “female factory,” where women convicts sent to Australia were put to work. Later, it was expanded to include a mental asylum and orphanage. Among the items found at the site are toothbrushes, combs, beads, and bits of jewelry. The archaeologists are unsure who owned these items. A number of small pieces of glass have also been discovered, possibly dating back to 1788, around the time the first colonists arrived in Australia. Archaeologist Jillian Comber believes these provide evidence of relationships between the European settlers and Aboriginal people, who used the glass for cutting or carving. “The glass is really important,” she said, “because we don't have a great deal of evidence of that coexistence between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.” For more on archaeology of nineteenth-century Australia, go to “Alone, but Closely Watched.”

Medieval English Graffiti Surveyed

BOLTON, ENGLAND—Archaeologists are searching buildings in Bolton for medieval markings designed to fend off evil spirits and bad omens, according to a report in The Bolton News. Members of the Bolton Archaeology and Egyptology Society are being trained to spot the marks through tours of historic buildings such as Hall i' th’ Wood, a Tudor manor house built in the early sixteenth century. “Buildings often change uses,” says Ian Trumble, the society’s chairman. “For example, Hall i’ th’ Wood was a farmhouse before it become a posh home and markings could show the different uses of the building over time.” Among the markings society members will be looking for are daisy wheels, taper burns, and the “VV” sign, which stands for “Virgo Virginum” and has traditionally been associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary. To read in-depth about medieval graffiti, go to “Letter from England: Writing on the Church Wall.”

Roman House Unearthed in Israel

  OMRIT, ISRAEL—A house built in the late first or early second century A.D. has been unearthed at the ancient site of Omrit in northern Israel, reports Live Science. A team led by Carthage College archaeologist Daniel Schowalter excavated the building and found that its floor was covered in plaster and its walls were decorated with elaborate frescoes. The surviving images depict bucolic scenes of trees, plants, and fish, as well as two ducks that appear to be huddling together. Schowalter believes the house may have been built for a Roman official, but that it's also possible a wealthy local could have lived there and commissioned the Roman-style frescoes. The team also unearthed several amulets in the shape of phalluses, which were thought to ward off misfortune during the Roman period. To see elaborate frescoes dating to the same era, go to “Romans on the Bay of Naples.”