A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, January 22

Derry’s Earliest Dated Building Unearthed

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND—An excavation carried out under a license from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has uncovered part of a building that is thought to have burned down in 1608, when the town of Derry was sacked by Cahir O’Doherty, whose lands had been confiscated for colonization during the reign of King James I. The timber walls and slate roof of the building collapsed into its stone cellar. Intact glass bottles were found, along with medieval pottery, musket balls, a small cannon ball, and clay pipes. “The building’s alignment is east-west and has been dated to the early 1600s. The east-west alignment is radically different to our present day Walled City street pattern. This clearly shows the building reflects the earlier street pattern based on the ecclesiastical settlement that pre-existed the plantation town of Londonderry,” Environment Minster Mark Durkan said in U TV. Derry’s city walls, which were constructed between 1613 and 1619, are intact. To read about the threat to one of the most important medieval settlements in the British Isles, go to "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."

Painted Red Numbers Found on Colosseum’s Walls

ROME, ITALY—Wanted in Rome reports that the restorers who have been carefully removing dirt and smog residue from the surface of the Colosseum have found traces of painted red numbers on its arches. Similar to today’s stadium seating systems, the numbers are thought to have directed visitors to their seats, assigned according to social class. Rossella Rea, director of the monument, says that the paint is an “exceptional discovery,”  since it had been thought that the painted numbers would not have survived. To read about the surprising uses of the Colosseum in the middle ages, go to "Colosseum Condos."

Police Raids Recover More Than 5,000 Artifacts

ROME, ITALY—A Switzerland-based art dealer and his wife have been accused of being part of an antiquities trafficking network involving tomb raiders in southern Italy; dealers; and buyers from Germany, Britain, the United States, Japan, and Australia. The looted works are thought to have been sent to Switzerland where they were restored and sold with counterfeit provenance papers. Italian police have seized more than 5,000 artifacts, including vases, jewelry, frescoes, and bronze statues dating from the eighth century B.C. to the third century A.D. The items are estimated to have been worth $64 million on the black market. “This is by a long shot the biggest recovery in history in terms of the quantity and quality of the archaeological treasures,” Carabineri General Mariano Mossa said at a news conference reported in The Columbian. Documents associated with the case could lead Italian authorities to artifacts now housed in top museums around the world. To read the dramatic story of an earlier effort to fight the illegal looting of Italy's ancient tombs, go to "Raiding the Tomb Raiders."

Arizona’s Jordan Cave Vandalized

SEDONA, ARIZONA—Jordan Cave, which was used as a dwelling by Native Americans some 800 years ago, has been vandalized, according to the U.S. Forest Department. Rocks from the dwelling were tossed over a nearby embankment. “Even just moving rocks around on the surface within the site, even if they don’t leave the site, still destroys that information,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Travis Bone told AZ Central. The department has released a photograph of three persons of interest in the case. The site is considered by many to be a sacred space. To read about how ancient farmers in Arizona brought water to the desert, go to "Early Irrigators."

Wednesday, January 21

2,000-Year-Old Roman Decoration Found in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports that a tiny bronze sculpture discovered by a metal detectorist on the Danish island of Falster has been identified as an image of Silenus, the companion and tutor of the wine god Dionysus, by experts at the National Museum of Denmark. The finely detailed figure depicts an elderly, bearded, balding man with thick lips and a plump nose that was originally a fitting from the headrest of a Roman dining couch, or a lectus tricliniaris. Such a bust of Silenus would have been paired with a figure of a mule’s head, since Silenus was often shown inebriated and carried by others or hanging over the back of a mule. The fitting may have come to Denmark on a Roman lectus tricliniaris, but it probably arrived as a loose object through trade, as a war trophy, or a gift. To read about a depiction of the god Silenus in one of the most famous works of ancient Roman art, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Pre-Columbian Bones in Peru Show Signs of Surgery

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Peru This Week reports that two skeletons from the pre-Columbian site of Kuelap show signs of bone surgery. The skeletons, both of moderately healthy males that date between 800 and 1535 A.D., had holes drilled in the bones of their legs. According to J. Maria Toyne of the University of Florida, the holes may have been intended to drain fluid and relieve pressure caused by injury or infection, although it is unclear if the patients died during the surgery, or if they may have been recently deceased and their bodies used for training purposes. Toyne adds that the people of the Chachapoya region had developed advanced medical practices during this period. To read more about ancient surgical advances, go to "Artful Surgery." 

River Clean-Up Could Retrieve Civil War Weapons

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—A planned environmental clean-up of the Congaree River in South Carolina could recover Confederate munitions that Union troops, under the command of General William T. Sherman, captured in 1865. Sherman’s army burned a third of the city and captured 1.2 million ball cartridges; 100,000 percussion caps; 6,000 unfinished arms; 4,000 bayonet scabbards; and 3,100 sabers. The soldiers reportedly dumped what they couldn’t carry in the river. Since then, fishermen and swimmers have recovered some of the weapons. “I’m sure there will be some interesting items. I don’t anticipate huge volumes,” state underwater archaeologist James Spirek told The State. The artifacts are expected to be found under some 40,000 tons of coal tar discharged into the river from a power plant 60 years ago. To read about the excavations of a Civil War prison, see "Life on the Inside."

Tuesday, January 20

Bacteria’s Genome Reflects Human History

PARIS, FRANCE—Nature News reports that a new genetic analysis of the Beijing lineage of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, suggests that it emerged some 6,600 years ago in northeastern China. This coincides with the archaeological evidence of the beginning of rice farming in China’s upper Yangtze River Valley. As in other parts of the world, it is thought the M. tuberculosis bacteria took hold in human populations when people settled down to farm. The research team, led by evolutionary geneticist Thierry Wirth at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, thinks that the bacteria probably spread along the Silk Road, which connected China to the Middle East, and eventually reached the Pacific Islands and Central Asia in the nineteenth century with waves of Chinese immigration. Numbers of the bacteria spiked during the Industrial Revolution and urbanization after World War I, when people lived in increasingly close quarters. The numbers of bacteria fell as antibiotics became widely available, but then rebounded with the rise of HIV/AIDS and the collapse of the Soviet health system. To read about the spread of tuberculosis to the New World, see "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."

Evidence of Carnivore Consumption Found at Atapuerca

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—Human tooth marks and cut marks have been found on the bones of small carnivores in El Mirador Cave at Atapuerca. The cave had been used to shelter flocks of sheep and cattle, but humans also sporadically consumed domestic dog, wild cat, fox, and badger, between 7,200 and 3,100 years ago. “In El Mirador Cave, the dogs were disarticulated, defleshed, and boiled. In this site this has been observed both in the Neolithic as in the Bronze Age levels. It occurs occasionally in various episodes, but has temporal continuity,” said Patricia Martin of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution. She notes that the wild animals may have been accidentally captured and consumed, and that the dogs may have been eaten at a time of food shortage, or even may have been butchered for their skins. To read more about discoveries at Atapuerca, see "First European."

High-Tech Imaging Detects Letters in Carbonized Scroll

NAPLES, ITALY—Vito Mocella of the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems used x-ray phase-contrast tomography to look inside carbonized scrolls from the library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. The library and its estimated 700 scrolls were burned and buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, and since its discovery in 1752, scientists and classicists have been attempting to unroll the papyri and read them. Mocella’s team was able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact. “It is a revolution for papyrologists,” he said of the study, published in Nature Communications. Daniel Delattre of the Institute for the Research and History of Texts in Paris examined the handwriting of the few letters and words that the team was able to recover. He thinks the scroll was written by a scribe known to have been working in the first century B.C., and that the text is likely a copy of a work by the Epicurian philosopher and poet Philodemus. Additional software could help speed up the process of reading the collection of scrolls, and trigger the continued excavation of the Villa of the Papyri. “One of the arguments against proceeding with the excavation of the villa is that we would be unable to read any scrolls that might be discovered, and until then it would be better to leave them underground. Now we are on the edge of possessing that technology, and, since an excavation will take some time to arrange, we might as well get started,” classicist Robert Fowler of the University of Bristol commented to Nature News. To read more about ancient papyri, see "Papyrus Fragment Bears Early Christian Prayers."

Amphipolis Tomb Held Five Individuals

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—The bones of at least five people had been buried in the tomb at Amphipolis, according to an announcement made by the Greek Ministry of Culture and reported in The Telegraph. Archaeologists identified the bones of a woman over the age of 60, a newborn baby, two men aged between 35 and 45, and the cremated remains of an adult of indeterminate age. The bones of one of the men bore signs of injury from a sword or a dagger. It has been suggested that the opulent tomb, which dates to between 325 B.C. and 300 B.C., may have belonged to Alexander the Great’s mother, who was murdered, along with his widow, son, and half-brother. The bones will be tested to try to determine if the woman and the two men were related. “Part of the analysis will look into a possible blood relationship… but the lack of teeth and cranial parts that are used in ancient DNA analysis may not allow for a successful identification,” the Ministry of Culture revealed. For more on the tomb, see "Top 10 Discoveries of 2014: Amphipolis."