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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 18

Possible Viking Vessel Identified in Canada

OTTAWA, CANADA—Traces of bronze and glass have been detected on a piece of a small, 1,000-year-old stone vessel recovered from Baffin Island in the 1960s. According to Patricia Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen, Peter Thompson of Peter H. Thompson Geological Consulting, Ltd., and Patricia Hunt of the Geological Survey of Canada, who published their findings in the journal Geoarchaeology, the container was used as a crucible for melting bronze and casting small tools or ornaments. The glass formed when the rock was heated to high temperatures. Indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic did not practice high-temperature metalworking at this time, but a similar stone crucible has been found at a Viking site in Norway. “The crucible adds an intriguing new element to this emerging chapter in the early history of northern Canada. It may be the earliest evidence of high-temperature nonferrous metalworking in North America to the north of what is now Mexico,” Sutherland told Sci-News.com. To read in-depth about some of the earliest evidence of Viking warfare, see "The First Vikings."

Cathedral Builders Reinforced Stone With Iron

PARIS, FRANCE—A team of French researchers from the Laboratoire archéomatériaux et prévision de l’altération, the Laboratoire de mesure du carbone 14, and the Université Paris 8, has extracted carbon from the iron used to support Gothic cathedrals, and used radiocarbon dating and archaeological evidence to determine that such reinforcements had been implemented in the initial phase of construction. It had been thought that metal reinforcements were added during later modifications or repairs to the stone structures. Up until Europe’s Middle Ages, iron ore was smelted in furnaces powered by charcoal, and as its carbon was released, some of it was trapped in the metal. The new technique can zero in on this carbon for dating purposes. For example, the metallic tie-rods supporting the flying buttresses on the Gothic cathedral in Beauvais have been dated to the beginning of its construction, in the mid-thirteenth century. Graffiti on the flying buttresses dates to the eighteenth century, and it had been thought that the metal may have been added at that time. The cathedral choir in Bourges is supported by an iron chain that dates to the late twelfth century, the time of its construction. The chain, however, skirts a group of columns, while passing under some others, suggesting that it had not been part of the building plan, but had been added as needed by the construction crew. To read about an early medieval cemetery unearthed in France, see "Dark Age Necropolis."

Royal Entryway Discovered at Herod’s Palace

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A monumental entryway to the Herodian Hilltop Palace at Herodium National Park has been unearthed by a team from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The entryway features a complex system of arches spanning its width on three separate levels, and a palace vestibule decorated with frescoes. The archaeologists, Roi Porat, Yakov Kalman, and Rachel Chachy, think that the corridor was back-filled when the hilltop palace was converted into a royal burial mound, and a monumental stairway was constructed from the hill’s base to its peak, over the corridor. Coins and temporary structures from the Great Revolt (66-71 A.D.), and tunnels dug by rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 A.D.), were found in the corridor. The tunnels had been supported by wooden beams and a roof made of woven cypress branches. To read about a hoard dating to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, see "2,000-Year-Old Stashed Treasure."

Wednesday, December 17

The Secret Strength of Roman Concrete

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—An international, interdisciplinary team of scientists has used beams of x-rays at the Advanced Light Source of the U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to study the longevity and endurance of Roman architectural concrete. A reproduction of the Roman volcanic ash-lime mortar that had been used to build the walls of Trajan’s Markets was observed over the 180-day curing process, and compared to 1,900-year-old samples of the original. The team discovered that a crystalline binding hydrate prevents microcracks from spreading, so that the concrete maintains its chemical resilience and structural integrity, even when earthquakes occur. In addition, mixing Roman cement releases less carbon into the environment than mixing modern Portland cement, which is made by heating a mix of limestone and clay to a higher temperature than that required to form the Roman version. “If we can find ways to incorporate a substantial volumetric component of volcanic rock in the production of specialty concretes, we could greatly reduce the carbon emissions associated with their production and also improve their durability and mechanical resistance over time,” explained Marie Jackson of the University of California, Berkeley. To read more about how Roman concrete was used, see "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."

2,800-Year-Old Farm House Will Be Preserved

ROSH HA-‘AYIN, ISRAEL—A 23-room farm house dating to the eighth century B.C. was unearthed in central Israel ahead of a construction project. “Farm houses during this period served as small settlements of sorts whose inhabitants participated in processing agricultural produce. The numerous wine presses discovered in the vicinity of the settlement indicate the wine industry was the most important branch of agriculture in the region. A large silo, which was used to store grain, shows that the ancient residents were also engaged in growing cereal,” said excavation director Amit Shadman, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Built during the time of the Assyrian conquest, the farm house was inhabited during the Persian period and the Hellenistic period. In fact, a rare, Greek silver coin bearing the name of a military leader was found on one of the floors of the building. A lime kiln dating to the Ottoman period was also uncovered. The site will be preserved and opened to visitors. To read about an intriguing discovery at another farm site in Israel, see "Crusader-Era Seal Unearthed in Jerusalem." 

Laser Technology Reveals Rickets in Mary Rose Sailors

LONDON, ENGLAND—Raman spectroscopy, a non-destructive laser technology, has been used to analyze leg bones of sailors who died on King Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, which sank in battle on July 19, 1545. The tests were conducted at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital, as part of a study by a team from University College London, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and The Mary Rose Trust. Some of the bones appeared anatomically healthy, and some were abnormal in shape. The results of the testing confirmed that the abnormal bones also had chemical abnormalities, perhaps caused by rickets, a metabolic bone disease caused by deficiencies in the diet. “This is the first time that this laser technology has been used to study bone disease in archaeological human bone. We have identified chemical changes in the bones, without damaging them. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the sailors had suffered from childhood rickets and we hope to apply the Raman technique to the study of modern day rickets,” said Dr. Jemma Kerns, RAMAN Clinical Study Manager at University College London and the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital. To read more about the Mary Rose, see "History's Top 10 Greatest Shipwrecks."

8,000-Year-Old Olive Oil Found in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Traces of olive oil have been detected on 8,000-year-old pot sherds unearthed at the site of Ein Zippori, located in the Lower Galilee. “Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive species that was domesticated and joined grain and legumes—the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then. Those crops are known from at least 2,000 years prior to the settlement at Ein Zippori. With the adoption of olive oil the basic Mediterranean diet was complete,” Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov of the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement reported by The Times of Israel. The well-preserved oil closely resembles modern olive oil. Evidence of olive oil production has been found at the 7,700-year-old site of Kfar Samir, now underwater off the coast of Haifa. To read about another recent Neolithic discovery in Israel, see "7,500-Year-Old Well Discovered."

Tuesday, December 16

Agricultural Practices Contributed to Tikal’s Decline

CINCINNATI, OHIO—The many residents of the Maya city of Tikal, located in Guatemala, would not have been able to import enough food to meet their needs without draft animals, wheeled vehicles, or navigable waterways. A team led by David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati analyzed surveys, satellite imagery, archaeological information, forest growth data, and pollen data. Phys.org reports the team determined that Tikal’s residents employed intensive agricultural practices, such as terracing, irrigation, and slash-and-burn cultivation to sustain the population’s growth during the Late Classic Period, from 600 to 850 A.D. But these methods rely on consistent annual rainfall, and the effects of a dry period in the middle ninth century may have been exacerbated by the clearing of forests and the pavement of large areas. Lentz and his colleagues conclude that by the late ninth century, the system could no longer provide enough food, fuel, and drinking water for the population and Tikal was abandoned. For laser scans of Tikal's monuments, see "The Past in High-Def."

Khirbet Summeily Yields 10th-Century B.C. Clay Seals

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI—Six clay seals unearthed at Khirbet Summeily, an early Iron Age site in southern Israel, suggest that there was more political complexity in the region at that time than had been previously thought. “These appear to be the only known examples of bullae from the tenth century [B.C.], making this discovery unique,” said Jimmy Hardin of Mississippi State University and co-director of the Hesi Regional Project. The bullae came from sealed written documents, at a site that had been thought to be a rural farmstead in a border area. “You have either political or administrative activities going on at a level well beyond those typical of a rural farmstead,” he explained. Two of the bullae have complete seal impressions, two have partial seal impressions, and two others are blank. Two of the bullae were blackened by fire, and one of them has a well-preserved hole where the string used to seal the document passed through the clay. “Generations of scholarship have suggested [that the people of Khirbet Summeily were] farming, but over the past few years, we have slowly realized that humans rarely farmed this region. It was a pasture. Shepherds tended sheep and goats under the protection of their government. Finding the bullae this past summer strongly supports our idea that Khirbet Summeily was a governmental installation,” commented Jeff Blakely of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-director of the Hesi Regional Project. The tenth century B.C. is often referred to as the time of the biblical kings David and Solomon. To read about unusual artifacts dating to the same period that were unearthed in Israel, see "Artifact: Iron Age Figurines."

Extinct Wild Horses Contributed to Today’s Domestic Breeds

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new study, led by Ludovic Orlando of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, compared the DNA obtained from two well-preserved horse fossils between 16,000 and 43,000 years old from arctic conditions in Russia, with those of the Przewalski’s horse—the only surviving population of wild horses—and five breeds of modern horses, which were first domesticated some 5,500 years ago. The team detected a set of 125 candidate genes favored by humans in modern horses that involve physical and behavioral traits, including genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. Some of those genes affect the development of muscles and bones, which would have been necessary for utilizing horses for transportation. Other genes favored by domestication control the animals’ response to fear. Negative impacts could be seen in the increasing levels of inbreeding and the accumulation of deleterious mutations that can occur in small populations. The study revealed that Przewalski’s horses have a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses, due to their recent near extinction. Finally, the genomes revealed that the ancient wild horses contributed to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. “This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process,” said co-author Mikkel Schubert of the Center for GeoGenetics. For more on horse genetics, see "Dappled Horse Paintings Decoded by DNA."

Easter Islanders Enjoyed Sweet Potatoes

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND—Monica Tromp of the University of Otago and John Dudgeon of Idaho State University have re-examined the plant microfossils found in dental calculus of the Polynesians who lived on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, in the years before European contact. Their previous research had suggested that palm may have been a staple plant food for the population, but other evidence indicates that the palm went extinct shortly after the island was colonized. For the new study, the researchers identified starch grains in the calculus removed from 30 teeth. All of the identified starch grains were consistent with modern sweet potato. None of the grains were similar to banana, taro, or yam, which are all thought to have been part of the islanders’ diet. They also tested the skins of modern sweet potatoes grown in soil similar to Easter Island’s, and found that the skins of the potatoes incorporated palm phytoliths from the soil. “So this actually bolsters the case for sweet potato as a staple and important plant food source for the Islanders from the time the island was first colonized,” said Tromp. “This research also shows that the plant foods you find evidence for in dental calculus can come from the environment that foods are grown in and not necessarily from the food itself—this finding has the potential to impact dental calculus studies worldwide,” she explained. For more on a similar study, see "Dental Calculus Offers Direct Evidence of Milk-Drinking."