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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 01

Anglo-Saxon Island Site Discovered in England

LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND—A team from the University of Sheffield has confirmed that a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon site was discovered by a metal detectorist in the village of Little Carlton. The metal detectorist found an eighth-century silver stylus in a plowed field, and reported it to England’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. He then returned to the site, and using a GPS system to record the location of his discoveries, recovered an additional 20 writing implements, 300 dress pins, a small lead tablet bearing the woman’s name “Cudberg,” and coins from the seventh and eighth centuries. Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield recovered Saxon pottery and butchered animal bone from the site. They think that it may have been an island monastery or trading center. Geophysical and magnetometry surveys, and 3-D modeling suggest that the island was connected to the rest of the Lincolnshire area through water courses. “It’s one of the most important sites of its kind in that part of the world. The quantity of finds that have come from the site is very unusual—it’s clearly not your everyday find,” Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield told The Guardian. For more on Anglo-Saxon England, go to "The Kings of Kent."

New Thoughts on the Rise of the Nubian Pharaohs

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—A woman’s burial in a cemetery in Tombos is an example of cultural entanglement, according to Stuart Tyson Smith of UC Santa Barbara and Michele Buzon of Purdue University. Located in what is now northern Sudan, the site had been a colonial hub after the Egyptians conquered Nubia around 1500 B.C. The woman’s middle-class tomb was Egyptian, but she had been buried on a bed in a flexed position on her side, in the Nubian style. Amulets of the Egyptian god Bes, the protector of households, were found around her neck. The woman herself was Nubian, according to Buzon, who has measured craniofacial features of skeletons from Tombos and established biological relationships and mixing between the Nubians and the Egyptians. “What we’re looking at is a more nuanced model of Egyptian and Nubian culture entangling, and how individual choices drive this kind of ethnic and cultural change, and ultimately enable these Nubian pharaohs to take over,” Smith said in a press release. For more on the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Better Living Through Neanderthal Chemistry

LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS—Scientists from Leiden University and Delft University of Technology think that Neanderthals that lived at the site of Pech-de-l’Azé some 50,000 years ago may have used manganese dioxide to help kindle their fires. It had been thought that the blocks of manganese oxides found at Neanderthal sites in France were used for body decoration, but soot from their fires would have been readily available for use as a dark pigment. Why would Neanderthals go to the trouble to collect this mineral? Peter J. Heyes, Konstantinos Anastasakis, Wiebren de Jong, Annelies van Hoesel, Wil Roebroeks, and Marie Soressi found that although manganese dioxide is a non-combustible material, when ground into a powder and sprinkled on wood, it lowers the auto-ignition temperature of the wood and makes it easier to start a fire. The researchers suggest that the use of manganese dioxide for lighting fires provides new insight into Neanderthal cognitive capabilities. They also note that manganese dioxide is used today to make batteries. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."

Prints in Saharan Rock Shelter May Not Be Human

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—According to archaeologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, mysterious prints at the remote rock art site of Wadi Sura II in Egypt’s Western Desert were not made by tiny infants or even other primates. “After many discussions with my colleagues of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, especially Professor Brigitte Senut, a great primatologist and palaeoanthropologist, we decided to investigate the reptile hypothesis,” Honoré told She found that the proportions of the prints were more closely aligned with the legs of desert monitor lizards, or even young crocodiles. “We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer, but our first results are also very convincing,” she explained. Researchers think that the paintings at Wadi Sura II date back at least 6,000 years. Discovered in 2002, they depict animals, people, and headless creatures. For more on cave painting, go to "The First Artists."

Monday, February 29

Colon-Cancer Gene Discovered in 18th-Century Mummy

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—An eighteenth-century Hungarian mummy has been found to have a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer by a team led by Rina Rosin-Arbesfeld and Ella H. Sklan of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The mummy was one of more than 265 found in the cool, dry crypts in use between 1731 and 1838 at a church in Vác, Hungary. The well-preserved soft tissues, paired with abundant archival information about the deceased, provide medical researchers with valuable samples. “Colorectal cancer is among the most common health hazards of modern times. And it has a proven genetic background. We wanted to discover whether it was the same mutation known to us today,” Rosin-Arbesfeld said in a press release. Colon cancer is also known to be caused by the modern problems of obesity, physical inactivity, and processed food. “Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era,” Sklan said. “But we’ve found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions,” she added. To read more about the study of cancer, go to "Ancient Oncology." 

Aboriginal Australian Y-Chromosomes Dated Back 50,000 Years

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—A team of scientists made up of researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and La Trobe University sequenced the Y-chromosomes of 13 Aboriginal Australian men, and found that their genetic history dates back some 50,000 years, to the time of the arrival of the first humans on the continent. It had been suggested by a previous genetic study that another wave of people arrived in Australia from India between four and five thousand years ago, at a time when changes in stone tool use have been noted in the archaeological record. Dingos are also thought to have arrived in Australia some 5,000 years ago. “The data show that Aboriginal Australian Y-chromosomes are very distinct from Indian ones. These results refute the previous Y-chromosome study, thus excluding this part of the puzzle as providing evidence for a prehistoric migration from India. Instead, the results are in agreement with the archaeological record about when people arrived in this part of the world,” Anders Bergstrom of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said in a press release. To see examples of prehistoric Aboriginal art, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Fresco Fragments in Transylvania May Be a Copy of a Lost Work

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY—Historian Szilard Papp of the Istvan Moller Foundation thinks that fragments of a fresco in a late fourteenth-century church ruin in Transylvania may be a medieval copy of The Navicella, an early fourteenth-century mosaic by Giotto di Bondone. The original artwork was installed above the entrance arcade of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The original was destroyed when the basilica was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, although three copies of the image, which depicts the Christian Christ walking on water before his apostles in a boat, are known to exist in France and Italy. Papp says a sketch of the mosaic must have made its way to Transylvania. “This is definitely the fourth,” he told the AFP. “It is astonishing that such a major work was reproduced in a small village church on the periphery of western Christianity at that time, so far from Rome,” he added. To read about an isolated medieval Christian settlement in the Middle East, go to "Hidden Christian Community."

Friday, February 26

Shark Image Found on 2,200-Year-Old Sword in Japan

TOTTORI, JAPAN—A small image of shark has been discovered engraved on the blade of a bronze sword that was donated to the Tottori Prefectural Museum more than 25 years ago. The weapon’s blade dates to the second century B.C., but researchers do not know where it was found. Similar images of sharks have been found on pottery and wooden objects from the Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) in the region, but this is the first time that a shark has been spotted on a bronze artifact from the period. “Sharks repeatedly shed and replace their teeth. Shark meat also is rich in ammonia, which makes it difficult to go rotten. Perhaps sharks were a symbol of regeneration or longevity,” Isao Yumura of the Tottori Prefectural Archives told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about a Viking sword from Norway, go to "Artifact."

Intermediate Gut Microbiome Found in Traditional Agriculturalists

LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA—Hunter-gatherers are known to have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who live in western-style industrialized societies. Microbial ecologist Andres Gomez of the J. Craig Venter Institute was studying the gut microbiomes of wild gorillas with the help of BaAka gorilla trackers, who live without western influences, when he and his colleagues decided to also collect samples from the BaAka, and from the Bantu community of the Central African Republic. The Bantu community is a traditional agriculturalist group that has incorporated some westernized lifestyle practices, such as the use of some flour-like products, domestic goat meat, antibiotics, and other therapeutic drugs. The researchers found that the Bantu gut microbiome is in an intermediate state between the microbiomes of the BaAka hunter-gatherers and western industrialized societies. “The BaAka microbiome is more similar to that of wild primates than it is to western humans,” Gomez said in a press release. The differences in the bacteria are involved in processing carbohydrates and foreign substances. “The study supports the idea that diet is the most important driver of microbiome composition in humans,” he explained. To read about hunter-gatherers in South America, go to "The Desert and the Dead."

Non-Destructive Testing Determines Diet From Teeth

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND—A team from the University of Kent, led by biological anthropologist Patrick Mahoney, used 3-D microscopic imaging to examine the teeth of children between the ages of one and eight years who lived near Canterbury Cathedral during the medieval period. Dental micro-wear texture analysis allowed the researchers to measure microscopic changes in the surface topography of the teeth without damaging them, and offered clues to how hard the food was that the children had been eating. The team found that weaning had begun for the youngest children, and that their diets became tougher at the age of four. By the age of six, the children were eating even harder foods. It had been thought that wealthier children had different diets than poorer children, but the variation in micro-wear texture surfaces suggests that diet did not vary with socio-economic status. For more on what can be learned from teeth, go to "Tracing Slave Origins."

Mesolithic Pendant Discovered in Britain

YORK, ENGLAND—An 11,000-year-old pendant has been discovered in lake-edge deposits at the Early Mesolithic site at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. It is triangular in shape, was carved from a single piece of shale, has a hole in one corner, and is engraved with a series of lines that scholars think could represent a tree, a map, a leaf, or tally marks. At first, the artifact was thought to be a natural stone, since the perforation was blocked by sediment. “It is unlike anything we have found in Britain from this period. We can only imagine who owned it, how they wore it, and what the engravings actually meant to them,” Nicky Milner of the University of York said in a press release. Shale beads, a piece of perforated amber, and two perforated animal teeth have also been recovered from the site. “The designs on our pendant are similar to those found in southern Scandinavia and other areas bordering the North Sea, showing a close cultural connection between northern European groups at this time,” added Chantal Conneller of the University of Manchester. To read about another find from the same area, go to "The Precious."