Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, May 29

Sculpted Dragon Heads Hint at Xanadu’s Splendors

XANADU, MONGOLIA—A recent article published in English in Chinese Cultural Relics describes three “life-like and dramatic” dragon heads discovered at the palace constructed by the grandsons of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. The dragon heads, which had been fashioned from fine red clay that had been glazed in yellow, blue, white, and black, would have decorated the ends of beams. Other colorful artifacts from the palace, known as Shangdu in China, include a fish glazed with “bright and life-like scales” of yellow and green, and dripstones shaped like dragons and birds that deflected water from the palace roof. The Chinese team of archaeologists from Inner Mongolia Normal University, the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics, and the Archaeology and Inner Mongolian Institute for Cultural Relics Conservation also uncovered a type of ramp called a mandao that was used by horses and vehicles to enter the palace. The ramps “would have been strongly connected to the pastoral way of life of the Mongols,” Live Science reports. To read about spectacular medieval ruins in Siberia, see "Fortress of Solitude."

Genetic Study Suggests Humans Migrated North Out of Africa

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Luca Pagani of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge led a team of scientists who produced whole-genome sequences from 225 Egyptians and Ethiopians. They found that regions of the Egyptian samples were more similar to non-African samples, and were present in higher frequencies outside of Africa, than regions of the Ethiopian genome. This suggests that when early humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago, they traveled through Egypt to the rest of the world. The results also indicate that people outside Africa split from the Egyptian genomes about 10,000 years more recently than from the Ethiopian genomes. “While our results do not address controversies about the timing and possible complexities of the expansion out of Africa, they paint a clear picture in which the main migration out of Africa followed a Northern, rather than a Southern route,” Toomas Kivisild of the University of Cambridge said in a press release on To read about a competing hypothesis, that early modern humans migrated around 125,000 years ago through the Arabian Peninsula, go to "New Evidence for Mankind's Earliest Migrations."

Environmental Stresses Left Marks on Ancient Genes

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Chemical modifications, known as epigenetic marks, can be added to or removed from a person’s DNA in response to environmental factors such as diet, disease, and climate. These changes can influence which genes are turned on or off during a person’s life, shaping physical traits and health, and can even be passed on to offspring if the changes occur in sperm and egg DNA. Anthropologists from The University of Texas at Austin have shown that epigenetic marks on DNA can be detected in ancient human remains using techniques that are normally used to measure changes in modern DNA. They looked for an epigenetic mark known as cytosine methylation on the remains of 30 individuals who lived in five different places in North America between 230 to more than 4,500 years ago. They were able to identify methylation in 29 of the samples. “By studying methylation in ancient DNA from archaeological populations, not just isolated samples, we may gain insights into how past environments affected ancient societies. Future research in ancient epigenetics should open a new window into the lives and experiences of people who lived long ago,” anthropologist Deborah Bolnick explained in a press release. To read about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."

Late Roman Fortress Wall Unearthed at Bulgaria’s Durostorum

SILISTRA, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that rescue excavations in the ancient city of Durostorum, the headquarters of the elite Roman 11th Legion, have revealed a fortress wall thought to have been built in the beginning of the fourth century A.D. According to archaeologist Georgi Atanasov of the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the well-preserved wall was held together with very strong red mortar. It encircled the city, strategically located on the Danube River, and had rectangular towers. Ioan Piso of Babes Bolyai University thinks that the wall could indicate that the city was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior, instead of Tomis, which is located in Romania. In fact, earlier excavations at Durostorum have uncovered Roman inscriptions bearing the names of the governors of the province of Moesia Inferior. The team has also found a second-century building that had been decorated with murals painted with the color Pompeian red, deep blue, green, and yellow. To read about how the construction of a port fueled the Roman Empire's rise, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Thursday, May 28

More on Bodicacia’s Tombstone

CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—It had been thought that a finely carved tombstone unearthed in western England was the first in Roman Britain to have remained with its intended grave, but researchers have found that even though the dedication on the tombstone named Bodicacia, a woman, the skeleton in the grave was male. In addition, the gravestone dates to the second century A.D., while the skeleton dates to the fourth century A.D. The five-foot-long stone, which has a roughly carved back, may have originally hung on a mausoleum wall. “We believe the tombstone to have been reused as a grave cover perhaps as long as two centuries after it was first erected,” Ed McSloy of Cotswold Archaeology told Discovery News. Even so, the gravestone is notable because it is the first time that the name Bodicacia has been found. And the limestone pediment is decorated with a unique image that depicts the Roman god Oceanus, which according to McSloy “is also hitherto unknown in funerary sculpture.” To read about the search for the great leader Boudicca's tomb, see "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."

Chinese Police Arrest 175 Suspected Looters

BEIJING, CHINA—China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that 175 people were arrested for looting tombs in Niuheliang, a Neolithic site in northeastern Liaoning province. According to the South China Morning Post, the pillagers had been divided into ten gangs that specialized in tasks such as digging, retrieval, and keeping watch. Four archaeologists are suspected of assisting the well-organized, well-equipped gang and trafficking the stolen antiquities. More than 1,000 police officers participated in the operation, and they reportedly recovered 1,168 artifacts, including a coiled jade dragon thought to be one of the earliest of its kind. For more on looting in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Bronze Mirrors Made in Japan Earlier Than Previously Thought

FUKUOKA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—A fragment of a mold used to cast bronze mirrors in 200 B.C. has been unearthed at the Sugu Takauta ruins in northern Kyushu. It had been thought that such tachukyo, or mirrors with knobs, had been imported from the Korean Peninsula at this time. The mold shows indentations to create knobs on the back of the mirror, which was circular in shape, and markings known as “rough patterns.” This mold may have been an early attempt to make mirrors with markings known as “detailed patterns” in Japan. Twelve mirrors with detailed patterns dating between the fourth and second centuries B.C. have been found in the tombs of powerful people in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kyushu, and the Kinki region of the island of Honshu. “This has added a new chapter in uncovering the situation of early bronze tool production in Japan,” Junichi Takesue of Fukuoka University told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about Roman glass discovered in Japan, go to "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

New Early Human Ancestor Lived Alongside “Lucy”

CLEVELAND, OHIO—Fossils of the upper and lower jaw of a new early human ancestor were discovered in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia by an international team of scientists led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The Australopithecus deyiremeda fossils are 3.3 to 3.5 million years old, overlapping with Australopithecus afarensis, who lived from 2.9 to 3.8 million years ago. Australopithecus deyiremeda differs from the famous “Lucy” fossils in the size and shape of its thick-enameled teeth and its robust lower jaws, suggesting that the two closely related species had different diets. “Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity,” Haile-Salassie said in a press release. The name of the new species, deyiremeda, (day-ihreme-dah) means “close relative” in the language spoken by the Afar people. To read about more recent evolutionary history, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry." 

Wednesday, May 27

Lethal Wounds Suggest Spain’s Pit of Bones Was a Burial Site

MADRID, SPAIN—Discovery News reports that a new analysis of Cranium 17 from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos suggests that the individual had been killed some 430,000 years ago by two blows to the head with the same object. The Sima de los Huesos, or Pit of Bones, is located at the bottom of a deep shaft in an underground cave system in northern Spain. It contains the remains of at least 28 individuals who are thought to be proto-Neanderthals and Neanderthals, but how the remains arrived in the pit has been a mystery until now. “Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill,” wrote Nohemi Sala, a researcher at Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos and lead author of the study published in PLOS One. Sala suggests that the blows to the skull indicate that the bodies of the dead must have been placed there. The Pit of Bones could thus “represent the earliest funerary behavior in the human fossil record.” To read about recent DNA research into the Sima de los Huesos remains, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

U.S. Returns Looted Artifacts to Italy

ROME, ITALY—The United States has returned 25 historic artifacts, including Etruscan vases, first-century frescoes, a third-century B.C. terracotta head, the cover of a second-century Roman sarcophagus, and a second-century bronze figurine to Rome. Some of the looted objects had been handed over to U.S. authorities by American museums, universities, and private collections when it became clear that the items had been stolen. Other artifacts were seized by police and customs officers. “Italy is blessed with a rich cultural legacy and therefore cursed to suffer the pillaging of important cultural artifacts,” U.S. Ambassador John Phillips said at a press conference reported by the Associated Press. He also said that the United States has returned more than 7,500 cultural artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007. Interpol estimates that each year, antiquities trafficking produces $9 billion in profits. To read about earlier repatriations, see "A Tangled Journey Home."

Artifacts Recovered from HMS Erebus

NUNAVUT, CANADA—Last month, underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada with the support of Royal Canadian Navy divers descended to the wreck site of HMS Erebus, lost nearly 170 years ago during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The ship, discovered late last summer in remote Arctic waters, was covered with kelp. Over the course of the five-day project, the team removed the kelp from the well-preserved ship’s port side. “It’s tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site,” senior underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris told CBC News. “We haven’t identified what caused it to sink. Maybe on the starboard side we’ll see some evidence of trauma,” he added. The divers found Franklin’s cabin, and they recovered a cannon, ceramic plates, and two brass buttons from the uniform of a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Marines. “Those are the artifacts that are probably the most personal,” Harris said. To read more, see "Saga of the Northwest Passage." 

Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard Continues

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Fragments of artifacts from the Staffordshire Hoard have been cleaned and are being fitted together in work funded by Historic England and public donations. The seventh-century Anglo-Saxon artifacts include a rare high-status helmet and a unique form of sword pommel that was in 26 pieces when it was uncovered. The pommel “combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest seventh-century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures,” project archaeologist Chris Fern said in a Birmingham Museums press release. The helmet was discovered in 1,500 thin, fragile sheets and strips of silver that had been stamped with designs depicting warriors, birds, animals, and mythical beasts. And it had a gilded helmet band, a decoration thought to have encircled the helmet. “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendor. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy,” Fern explained. The original find of the hoard was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2009, to read more, go to "Anglo-Saxon Hoard."