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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, November 11

Pigments Could Help Scientists Date Cave Art

VALENCIA, SPAIN—A team of scientists from the University of Valencia and France’s National Center for Scientific Research has identified a new set of figures painted in black on the walls of the Remígia Cave in the Valltorta-Gassulla area of Spain, and analyzed how the pigments in the artworks were prepared. The pigments were tested on site with EDXRF—energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence, and microsamples were tested in the lab with electron microscopy. Most of the rock art in the Iberian Mediterranean Basin, known as Levantine art, is made with a red pigment from iron oxide. Red was also used to paint over some of the black images. White was sometimes used to complement the red. The black pigments in these new paintings were made from carbonized plant materials that could help the team date the artwork. “Up to now, these pigments were associated with the use of mineral components such as manganese oxides, but this study has made it possible, for the first time, to identify the use of carbonized plant material to produce the black pigments used in the Levantine paintings at Valltorta-Gassulla,” Clodoaldo Roldán of the University of Valencia told Science Daily. To read about another ancient pigment study, see "From Egyptian Blue to Infrared."

Vivid Murals Depict Daily Life in Ancient China

DATONG CITY, CHINA—Live Science reports that a circular tomb decorated with murals has been excavated in northern China. The 1,000-year-old tomb had been looted, and the name of its occupant has not survived, but a three-foot-tall statue of him was left behind. The figure, which may have been substituted for the body in the burial, is sitting cross-legged on a platform and smiling, wearing a long black robe. The tomb’s ceiling was decorated with bright red stars connected with straight lines to form constellations. Images on the walls depict attendants carrying fruit and drinks. A reclining deer, a crane, bamboo trees, and a turtle are also shown. Other animals in the paintings may have been pets of the deceased, described in the new journal Chinese Cultural Relics by a team from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology as “a black and white cat with a red ribbon on its neck and a silk-strip ball in its mouth,” and “a black and white dog with a red ribbon on its neck and a curved tail.” To read about other archaeological depictions of dogs, see "More Than Man's Best Friend."

U.S. Museum Sends Artifacts Home to Peru

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The United States Air Force transported human remains, ceramic vessels, necklaces, and a textile to the Peruvian Air Force base in Lima. All of the artifacts and remains, which had been housed at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, were identified for repatriation under the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. “It’s been an honor to care for these collections. We are glad to help send these collections home to Peru,” Peter Lape, associate director of research and curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum, told The Daily. The staff at the museum found the three sets of Peruvian remains when they inventoried their collections to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The museum and the Peruvian government then coordinated their efforts to identify the additional artifacts. 

Ice Age Infant Burials Discovered in Central Alaska

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—The remains of two infants buried more than 11,000 years ago have been found underneath a hearth where the cremated remains of a three-year old child were discovered earlier. The hearth is part of a residential structure at Upward Sun River, one of the oldest archaeological settlements in Alaska. Perhaps a set of twins, one of the infants died in utero, while the other lived for a few weeks. The radiocarbon dates for all three sets of remains are identical, suggesting that there was perhaps only a single season between the death of the infants and the death of the small child. The hearth also contained traces of salmon and ground squirrels, offering clues to the diet eaten by the inhabitants, and indicating that the burials took place during the summer months. Shaped stone points and antler shafts decorated with incised lines were included in the burials as grave offerings. The weapons are the earliest known examples of hafted biface technology in North America. “Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks told Science Daily. DNA analysis could reveal how the children were related to each other and who the people were who lived at Upward Sun River. To read more about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning." 

Monday, November 10

Ancient Basket Found on Scottish Island

NORTH UIST, SCOTLAND—Recent storms have exposed a woven reed basket containing worked quartz and animal bones on an island in the Outer Hebrides. “It’s rare to find well-preserved organic material. It indicates that this basket must have been kept under water from the day that it was placed, or lost, there. Perhaps it was in a freshwater loch until it was covered over by encroaching beach sediment,” Kate MacDonald of Uist Archaeology told the Island News and Advertiser. Specialists will remove the basket, which might date to the Bronze Age and was discovered by a member of a local archaeology group, in a block of sediment so that it can be excavated under laboratory conditions. The quartz and bones will also be examined. To read about another recent discovery in Scotland, see "Viking Hoard Unearthed." 

Tunnel Excavation Reveals Stone-Age Footprints

FALSTER, DENMARK—Footprints thought to have been left by fishermen 5,000 years ago have been found by archaeologists working ahead of the planned construction of the Femern Belt Tunnel, which will connect Denmark and Germany. “We normally find historical clues in the form of human waste, but here we have found an entirely different clue and a first in Danish archaeology: a physical print left behind by a human,” archaeologist Terje Stafseth of the Museum Lolland-Falster told The Copenhagen Post. The prints are thought to have been made by two individuals who waded out into a silted seabed to repair and eventually move their weirs from the flooding. “We can follow the footprints, sense the importance of these weirs and know they would have been an important source of nutrition for the coastal community,” Stafseth added. To read about a similar site, see "England's Oldest Footprints."

Pond Discovered at Roman Settlement in England

BARNHAM, ENGLAND—Excavations in southern England have uncovered traces of a first-century Roman settlement. “All the archaeological features appear today as filled with pale grey silt, and it is usually easy to see that these must be silted-up ditches, pits and post-holes, but a large round grey splodge on the site was puzzling everyone,” John Mills, senior archaeologist for the West Sussex County Council, told BBC News. The large, round depression is thought to be a pond that was surrounded by trash pits filled with household debris. Pottery at the site had been crafted in the nearby Arun Valley. Tiles used by the Romans to equip stone buildings with under-floor heating suggest that a larger building may still be found at the site. To read more about life in Roman Britain, see "Artifact: Vindolanda Tablet."

Carving of Unidentified God Unearthed in Turkey

MÜNSTER, GERMANY—While excavating a medieval Christian monastery in southeastern Turkey, excavation director Engelbert Winter and archaeologist Michael Blömer of the University of Münster uncovered a Roman relief that had been repurposed as a buttress. The monastery had been built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, a prominent god of the second century A.D. “The image is remarkably well preserved. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs of the Romans and into the continued existence of ancient Near Eastern traditions. However, extensive research is necessary before we will be able to accurately identify the deity,” Blömer told Science Daily. The image, which may date to the early first millennium B.C., had been carved on a basalt stele and shows the deity growing from a chalice of leaves. A long horn and a tree, grasped by the god, grow from the sides of the cone. To read more about the team's discoveries in Turkey, see "How to Pray to a Storm God."

Friday, November 07

The Arrival of People Doomed New Zealand’s Moa

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—The extinction of the moa, New Zealand’s large, flightless bird, occurred shortly after the arrival of humans, according to a study of more than 600 radiocarbon dates conducted by a team including George Perry of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment and School of Biological Sciences. “This is the first time we have been able to show that extinction was both rapid and synchronous across New Zealand,” he told Stuff. Radiocarbon dates of moa eggshells at archaeological sites in the South Island show that people began hunting and eating moa after the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in about 1314 A.D. Radiocarbon dates of moa bones from non-archaeological sites show that they died out in the lowlands of the South Island by the end of the fourteenth century, and total extinction probably occurred by 1425. “Our results demonstrate how rapidly megafauna were exterminated from even large, topographically and ecologically diverse islands such as New Zealand, and highlight the fragility of such ecosystems in the face of human impacts,” Perry and his team wrote in Quaternary Science Reviews.

The Earliest Europeans

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—DNA from the ulna of a modern human skeleton discovered in 1954 at an archaeological site at Kostenki-Borshchevo, located in southwest Russia, has been mapped by a team of scientists led by evolutionary biologist Eske Wilerslev of the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen. The skeleton has been dated to between 36,200 and 38,700 years old, making the genome the second oldest to be sequenced. This new data suggests that this man, who had dark skin and dark eyes, had DNA from Europe’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, people from the Middle East who later became early farmers, and western Asians. It had been thought that these three groups only mixed in the past 5,000 years. “What is surprising is this guy represents one of the earliest Europeans, but at the same time he basically contains all the genetic components that you find in contemporary Europeans—at 37,000 years ago,” Willerslev told Science. The man, known as Kostenki XIV and as Markina Gora, also had about one percent more Neanderthal DNA than today’s Europeans and Asians, from modern human and Neanderthal contact more than 45,000 years ago. “In principle, you just have sex with your neighbor and they have it with their next neighbor—you don’t need to have these armies of people moving around to spread the genes,” Willerslev explained. To read more about paleogenetics, see "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."

Bell from HMS Erebus Revealed

OTTAWA, CANADA—According to The Globe and Mail, a bronze bell has been recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of two ships lost during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic to search for the Northwest Passage. The bell, dated 1845, was found on the ship’s upper deck, where it would have been struck every half hour, day and night, to keep time and signal the changing of the crew’s watches. The bell is also marked with a “broad arrow,” a symbol of the Royal Navy and the British Government. It is being kept in fresh water and will be carefully cleaned over the next 18 months to remove the salt from its surface. HMS Erebus was discovered in the Queen Maud Gulf earlier this fall. Further exploration of the wreck site will resume in the spring. To read about the discovery of HMS Investigator, the doomed vessel dispatched to search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature "Saga of the Northwest Passage."