Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, June 14

SS Coast Trader Identified in Canadian Waters

VANCOUVER, CANADA—A team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and Ocean Exploration Trust has confirmed that a well-preserved shipwreck in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is the SS Coast Trader, a World War II–era merchant marine vessel. The 324-foot supply ship exploded and sank off the coast of Vancouver Island in June 1942. At the time, reports indicated that an “internal explosion” caused the ship to sink. The survey, reported in The Lookout, revealed that the ship had been struck with a torpedo. “This finding brings an important part of [the Second World War] right to our doorstep and proves the fears of a full-scale attack were very real and the [Japanese] submarines were right here operating on Canada’s west coast,” said Ken Burton, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. The 56 people on board the freighter were rescued by the Royal Canadian Navy after 40 hours at sea. One of the sailors eventually died from injuries and exposure. To read about another underwater discovery, go to "Canada Finds Erebus."

Flint Tools From Spain May Be One Million Years Old

BARCELONA, SPAIN—An excavation led by scientists from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleo-Ecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) in the La Mina area at Barranc de la Boella has uncovered 50 flint tools estimated to be between 800,000 and one million years old. Well-preserved remains of deer, horses, cattle, rhinoceros, and hyenas were also found, in addition to hyena coprolites. IPHES researcher Josep Vallverdú told the Catalan News Agency that the site “contains the oldest files on human evolution in Catalonia and on the Iberian Peninsula." Plans are being made for the continued excavation of the site, which is located in the Francolí River Basin. 

Belgium Returns Marble Head to Italy

ROME, ITALY—Reuters reports that the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels has repatriated a sculpture of Rome’s first emperor that it purchased in 1975 from an antiquities dealer in Zurich. Art historians say the veiled head resembles another in the town of Nepi's museum, and was probably part of a statue of a young man wearing a toga. Now known as the “Augusto di Nepi,” the sculpture is thought to depict the young Octavius before he became emperor of Rome around 27 B.C. “After more than 40 years of exile in Europe, he’s finally home. Welcome back Augustus,” said Nepi mayor Pietro Soldatelli. For more on the archaeology of ancient Rome, go to "Trash Talk."

Roman Silver Hoard Discovered in Scotland

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Researchers led by Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen returned to a farmer’s field in northeastern Scotland where a hand pin, chain, and spiral bangle all made of silver in the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. had been found more than 170 years ago. According to a report in Live Science, on the second day of the investigation, the team, which had the assistance of metal detectorists, found three Roman silver coins, a silver strap end, a piece of a silver bracelet, and pieces of hack silver. Over a period of 18 months, they gathered a total of 100 artifacts, now known as the Gaulcross Hoard. The pieces are thought to have been high-status objects imported from the Roman world. The research team suggests that the items in the hoard had been collect by non-Romans, such as the Picts, through looting, trade, bribes, or as military pay. Noble adds that the chunks of silver may even have served as currency. For more, go to "Seaton Down Hoard."

Monday, June 13

Solar Boat Timbers Removed from Giza Plateau Pit

CAIRO, EGYPT—Conservators are restoring a second solar boat discovered in 1954 in a pit beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The first boat was found dismantled but arranged to resemble a boat, and was reconstructed. A Japanese-Egyptian team began the restoration of the second boat in 2009. So far, they say they have documented and removed 700 of the 1,200 pieces of the boat from the pit’s 13 levels. Eissa Zidan, supervisor of the restoration work, told Ahram Online that the solar boats each had two shrines—one for the pharaoh at the rear of the boat, and one for the captain, at the front of the boat. Timbers removed from the pit recently may be the floors to the captain’s shrine. “This is a great step forward in the conservation of Khufu’s second boat,” Zidan said. For more, go to "Egypt’s Immigrant Elite."

An Update From Cambodia’s Lidar Campaign

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—According to a report in The Guardian, analysis of data collected last year with lidar (light detection and ranging) technology over a 734-square-mile area reveals the extent of multiple cities, iron smelting sites, and a system of waterways that surrounded Angkor Wat and other medieval temple complexes built by the Khmer Empire. The results of the study, led by Australian archaeologist Damian Evans of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient and the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative, suggest that Mahendraparvata, discovered in 2012 beneath Mount Kulen, was larger than had been previously thought. Evans’ team also discovered a city surrounding the archaeological site of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. In addition, the researchers expect that the lidar information will help them understand what has been thought of as the collapse of Angkor. “There’s an idea that somehow the Thais invaded and everyone fled down south—that didn’t happen, there are no cities [revealed by the aerial survey] that they fled to. It calls into question the whole notion of an Angkorian collapse,” Evans said. For more, go to "Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape."

Ship Sheds of Ancient Naval Bases Found in Greece

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Haaretz reports that the Zea Harbor Project mapped the remains of ancient Greek naval bases in Mounichia Harbor and Zea Harbor between 2001 and 2012. The team of archaeologists, working on land and under water, has found massive fortifications and a total of 15 structures that were used to house ships when they were pulled ashore. “It is an enticing thought that some of the Athenian triremes that fought against the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C. were most probably housed in these ship-sheds,” said project director Bjørn Lovén of the Danish Institute at Athens. The foundations for the sheds measured more than four feet wide and stood more than 160 feet long and 20 feet tall. For more, go to "The Acropolis of Athens."

Lead Sling Bullets May Have “Whistled” During Battle

DUMFRIESSHIRE, SCOTLAND—Cast-lead sling bullets recently unearthed in southwestern Scotland are thought to have been used by Roman auxiliary troops during an attack of a fort on Burnswark Hill some 1,800 years ago. Such sling bullets range in size from an acorn to a lemon. About 20 percent of the sling bullets recovered from the site had been drilled with a small hole. Similar sling bullets have been found at ancient battle sites in Greece, and at first, researchers thought the small holes might have contained poison. Now archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust thinks the projectiles with holes might have produced a whistling sound intended to terrify opponents, since his brother pointed out that lead weights used for casting fishing lines can produce a whistle in flight. “We think it was an all-out assault on the hilltop, to demonstrate to the natives what would happen to them if they resisted,” Reid said in a Live Science report. His team thinks the small bullets, shot in groups of three or four from a pouch attached to two long cords, were used for close-range fighting. For more on archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Friday, June 10

East Africa’s Vegetation Changes Detected in Marine Sediments

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Climate change and the appearance of grasslands coincided with the evolution of the first hominins, according to a study led by Kevin Uno of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He and his team collected sediment cores dating back 24 million years from the bottom of the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean. Analysis of the chemicals in the sediments suggests that plants that grew in East Africa, where the first hominins are thought to have evolved, blew out to sea and sank. More than ten million years ago, those plants came from dense forests. Chemicals linked to grasses slowly began to appear in later layers of sediment. “This now gives us a timeline for the development of those grasses, and tells us they were part of our evolution from the very beginning,” Uno said in a UPI report. For more, go to "A New Human Relative."

Scientists Unearth Macaque “Tools” in Thailand

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The wild macaques of coastal Thailand have been using stones as tools for generations, according to a UPI report. Scientists led by Michael Haslam of the University of Oxford observed the monkeys searching for good stones and using them to process oysters, snails, nuts, and crabs. When particular stones worked well, the monkeys placed them near the boulders where they preferred to eat. The researchers then examined the marks on the stones and excavated the area to look for similar ones. They found identical marks on stones in a layer with oyster shells that were carbon-dated to between ten and 50 years ago. “As we build up a fuller picture of their evolutionary history, we will start to identify the similarities and differences in human behavior and that of other primates,” Haslam explained. For more on Southeast Asia, go to "Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape."

Researchers Decipher Antikythera Mechanism Text

ATHENS, GREECE—Using X-ray scanning equipment and imaging technology, an international team of scientists has read most of the explanatory text engraved in tiny letters on the known surviving fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism. Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University said that the text does not instruct the reader on the use of the device, but is more like a descriptive label. The artifact, recovered from a first-century B.C. shipwreck off the coast of a Greek island in the early years of the twentieth century, is made up of bronze gears and plates, and was probably encased in wood and operated with a hand crank. It is thought to have functioned as an astronomical instrument to  track the position of the sun, the phases of the moon, the positions of the planets, and the timing of eclipses. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment,” Alexander Jones of New York University said in an Associated Press report. Investigators have returned to the shipwreck to look for more pieces of the device. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to "The Acropolis of Athens."