Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 08

Thousands of Porcelain Pieces Mark Silk Road Port

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Xinhua reports that thousands of pieces of porcelain have been unearthed at the site of Qinglong Town in suburban Shanghai. Historic documents indicate that the town was an important stop on the maritime Silk Road. The porcelain was made in south China and dates to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) and the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279). Similar porcelain goods have been found in Korea and Japan, according to archaeologist Jie Chen of the Shanghai Museum. “This shows the porcelain was transported to Qinglong from south China kilns and then exported to the Korean Peninsula and Japan by sea,” Chen said. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

When Did Smallpox Emerge?

HAMILTON, CANADA—The smallpox virus has been detected in the seventeenth-century mummy of a child found in a crypt at a church in Vilnius, Lithuania, according to a report in Seeker. “We believe this is the oldest smallpox genome sequenced to date,” said Ana Duggan of the McMaster University Ancient DNA Center. Duggan and her colleagues compared the seventeenth-century strain of the disease-causing virus with samples dating from 1946 to 1977. They found that all of the strains had a recent common ancestor that originated sometime between 1588 and 1645. Based upon scarring on ancient Egyptian mummies, it had been thought that the disease was thousands of years old. Evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center, says that the ancient cases may actually have been chicken pox or measles, and will require further investigation. The team also says the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century may have triggered the virus to split into two strains. “This raises important questions about how a pathogen diversifies in the face of vaccination,” Duggan said. To read about an excavation relating to Edward Jenner, pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, go to "Letter from England: The Scientist's Garden."

Reconstruction Offers a Possible Glimpse of Robert the Bruce

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND—Researchers from the University of Glasgow and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) have reconstructed the face of Robert the Bruce, who ruled Scotland from 1306 to 1329, according to a BBC News report. His remains are thought to have been unearthed at Dunfermline Abbey around 1818, and although the bones were sealed in pitch and reburied, a cast of the skull was made and has been kept in a London museum. Nothing is known about Bruce’s appearance, but documents record that he suffered from an illness. The position of the skull bones in the cast allowed researchers to infer Robert's facial muscle formation and determine the shape and structure of his face, said craniofacial expert Caroline Wilkinson of LJMU. The team also found signs of leprosy on the upper jaw and nose of the skull cast, so they created versions of the king’s face with leprosy and without the disease, explaining that its effects may not have been very noticeable, since it was not documented. The researchers also gave the strong warrior king light brown hair and eyes in the reconstruction, based upon statistical evaluation. For more on Robert the Bruce, go to “Bannockburn Booty.”

Wednesday, December 07

New Thoughts on Neolithic Staple Crops

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Researchers from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen have analyzed plant remains collected from archaeological sites in southwest Asia, according to a report in the International Business Times. They found that between 11,600 and 10,700 years ago, legumes, fruits, and nuts were plentiful in the diets of people living in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, while cereals such as wheat and barley were the preferred foods in Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Israel. The study suggests that cereals were domesticated between 10,700 and 10,200 years ago in the southern Levant, where they were popular, but not domesticated in the eastern Fertile Crescent for another 400 to 1,000 years. “It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions,” said archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui. This suggests that examining the domestication of lentils, beans, and peas could help researchers understand the growth of agriculture in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. For more on archaeology in the area, go to “Mystery Buildings at Petra.”

Transatlantic Slave Trade Studied With DNA

RUPERT’S VALLEY, SAINT HELENA—Nature reports that Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues are studying the transatlantic slave trade by sequencing the genomes of people buried in slave cemeteries. One of the sites in the study is the African Graveyard on the island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. Between 1840 and the late 1860s, tens of thousands of people on board slave ships captured by the British Navy were dropped off on the island. Many of the survivors were relocated, but as many as 10,000 died on the island and were buried in the African Graveyard. Schroeder and his team collected DNA from the teeth of 63 individuals whose remains were recovered in a construction project, and then sequenced partial genomes of 20 of the samples. The results, when compared to DNA samples from modern African ethnic groups, suggest that the island’s refugees came from diverse populations in West and Central Africa. As the genomes of more living people in sub-Saharan Africa are sequenced, Schroeder and his team should find better matches. They are also analyzing the geochemistry of the teeth for information about where people spent their childhoods, and the modifications made to the teeth for clues to possible cultural ties. For more, go to “Tracing Slave Origins.”

Ancient Imperial Sacrifices Unearthed in China

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—A sacrificial site that may have been used by the emperors of the Qin (221–206 B.C.) and Western Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 24) dynasties has been excavated in Fengxiang, some nine miles southeast of the ancient capital, according to a report in China Daily. The excavation team recovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including jade objects, tiles, bronze ornaments, chariots, and the remains of horses at the site, which has been known as Yongshan Blood Pool since antiquity because of the livestock that was thought to have been slaughtered and buried there. “The excavation focused on a rammed-earth platform and sacrificial pits, two site ruins with different characters, and it is the first time we have found such imperial sacrificial sites, which are identical with ancient records,” said researcher Tian Yaqi of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Genetic Study Reveals High-Altitude Adaptation in Dogs

SHANGHAI, CHINA—According to a report in Science Magazine, geneticist Zhen Wang of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and his colleagues examined DNA samples taken from China’s highland and lowland gray wolves, Tibetan mastiffs, Chinese lowland village dogs, and a golden jackal. The study suggests that lowland dogs traveled to the Tibetan Plateau with people about 24,000 years ago, where they interbred with the Tibetan gray wolves and acquired a gene variant that regulates the production of hemoglobin in the blood. This gene is key to surviving with the limited supply of oxygen at high altitude. People are thought to have acquired a variant of this same gene from the Denisovans. “It’s surprising and provocative that this [interbreeding] strategy has been employed by both species,” commented molecular biologist Frank Lee of the University of Pennsylvania. To read in-depth about dogs and archaeology, go to “More Than Man's Best Friend.”

Tuesday, December 06

Human Remains Uncovered at Neolithic Site in Wales

ANGLESEY, WALES—The Daily Post reports that human remains have been found at Llanfaethlu, a Neolithic site located on an island off the northwest coast of Wales. These include several teeth, which will help scientists learn more about the area's first farmers. The researchers, from CR Archaeology, also uncovered a fourth early Neolithic house at the site, in addition to decorated pottery dating to the middle Neolithic period, flint and stone tools, and flakes of rock crystal. Much of the stone is thought to have been imported from Ireland and England’s Peak District. For more go to “Letter from Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”

Iron Age Remains from Orkney Analyzed

ORKNEY, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands have analyzed a human jaw containing two worn teeth that was discovered earlier this year in a broch, or fortified roundhouse, at a site known as The Cairns. The jaw had been placed in a whalebone vertebra that had been shaped into a vessel and placed near the antlers of a red deer. The analysis indicates that the man had been at least 50 years old at the time of his death, which occurred sometime between A.D. 120 and 240. Bone had grown over the sockets of his missing teeth. The results of isotopic studies of human remains from this period usually indicate little fish in the diet, even in coastal areas, but this man had eaten a diet rich in fish. Site director Martin Carruthers suggests that the man may have been an important person whose death led to the special burial and the abandonment of the broch. For more on archaeology in Orkney, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Students Investigate Ireland’s “Deserted Village”

DOOAGH, IRELAND—Irish Central reports that students from the Achill Archaeological Field School have been investigating a remote nineteenth-century village of around 40 houses located near Keem Bay, on the western tip of Achill Island. The people who lived in the village grew potatoes and perhaps oats and raised cattle. Their single-room houses were built of drystone walls more than three feet thick, and had rounded corners and a single door facing the bay. Central hearths were placed on the earthen floors. Smoke from peat fires would have traveled out the door and through the thatched roofs. The larger of the houses excavated by the team measured about 23 feet long by 10 feet wide, and may have also been a winter home for cattle, since it had a stone-lined drain near the door. The students also uncovered pieces of fine, decorated earthenware from English potteries, three glass beads that may have been part of a rosary, and lumps of amethyst from a nearby quarry that were sold to tourists drawn by the Protestant Achill Mission, which was founded in 1831. The village is thought to have been abandoned during the Great Famine of the 1840s. For more on archaeology in Ireland, go to “Samhain Revival.”

Industrial Pollution in the Ancient World

WATERLOO, CANADA—CBC News reports that a dry riverbed in the Wadi Faynan region of southern Jordan has yielded evidence of pollution caused by copper smelting some 7,000 years ago. At the time, according to Russell Adams of the University of Waterloo, people were experimenting with heating charcoal and copper ore in pottery vessels over a fire. By 2600 B.C., copper was being mined and smelted in furnaces on a large scale. Adams thinks the waste materials produced by thousands of years of smelting copper, including zinc, lead, arsenic, and thallium, were probably absorbed by plants and consumed by animals and people, to the detriment of their health. And, in fact, high levels of copper and lead have been found in human bones dating back to the Roman period. Adams and his colleagues are continuing to study the extent of the pollution as metal production expanded in the Wadi Faynan region. For more on ancient pollution, go to “The Environmental Cost of Empire.”

Evidence Suggests Paleolithic Diet Included Plenty of Plants

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—New Scientist reports that remnants of edible plants dating back 780,000 years have been found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel. Evidence of more than 50 different kinds of plants was preserved in the waterlogged site, along with evidence of occupation, probably by Homo erectus. The plant remains suggest that, in addition to animal foods, Paleolithic human ancestors ate a wide variety of seasonal nuts, fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, roots, and tubers, which were collected from plants, trees, and shrubs. Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is also known for its early evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem explained that roasting the region’s plants would have made more of them edible. “The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the [early] hominin diet or even to the early farmers’ diet,” said Goren-Inbar. For more, go to “Evolve and Catch Fire.”