Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, July 29

Cat’s Paw Prints Found on Roman Roof Tile

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND—A cat’s paw prints were spotted on a first-century Roman roof tile unearthed in Gloucester in 1969 by an archaeologist who had been looking through the thousands of tile fragments stored at the Gloucester City Museum. “When Romans made roof tiles they left the wet clay out to dry in the sun. Animals, and people, sometimes walked across the drying tiles and left their footprints behind,” a museum spokesperson told The Telegraph. “Dog paw prints, people’s boot prints, and even a piglet’s trotter print have all be found on tiles from Roman Gloucester, but cat prints are very rare,” added Lise Noakes, cabinet member for culture and leisure at Gloucester City Council. To read about some of those types of dog prints, and much more about the roles of ancient dogs, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Study of Magnetic Fields Assisted by Iron Age Archaeology

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK—Information gathered by archaeologist Thomas Huffman of Witwatersrand University has assisted geophysicist John Tarduno and astrophysicist Eric Blackman of the University of Rochester, and geologist Michael Watkeys of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. They are studying the magnetic field record in southern Africa, and its relationship to the reversals of the Earth’s magnetic poles. During the Iron Age in southern Africa, (between 1000 and 1500 A.D.), agricultural communities ritually cleansed their villages by burning down huts and grain bins. The clay floors of the huts and grain bins reached temperatures hot enough to erase the magnetic information stored in the mineral magnetite, and create a new record of the magnetic field strength at the time of the fire. The scientists were able to use this information to understand the weakening of the magnetic field in the region. “It has long been thought reversals start at random locations, but our study suggests this may not be the case,” Tarduno said in a press release. To read about some of our earliest ancestors in Africa, go to "Toothsome Evidence."

Medieval Distillation Vessel Unearthed in Bulgaria

SOFIA, BULGARIA—The Sofia News Agency reports that while excavating the medieval Lyutitsa fortress above the town of Ivaylovgrad, a team led by archaeologist Filip Petrunov discovered a fragment of a vessel used for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy that is still enjoyed today. The fragment, which dates to the eleventh century, is the second vessel for the distillation of rakia to be found in the fortress, and the third one to have been found in Bulgaria. All three vessels date to the eleventh century. It has been argued that Bulgarians did not begin to produce rakia until the sixteenth century. To read about the art of wine-making in ancient France, go to "French Wine, Italian Vine."

Ground-Penetrating Radar Maps Lithuania’s Great Synagogue

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority announced in a press release that significant remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhof of Vilna have been mapped with ground-penetrating radar. The international research team was led by John Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Zenonas Baubonis of the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, and Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. The Great Synagogue, built in the seventeenth century in the Renaissance-Baroque style, was the oldest monument of Jewish culture in Lithuania. The structure was eventually surrounded by 12 synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and a ritual bath complex. Vilna’s Jewish community was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, and the remains of the buildings were later demolished by the Soviets. A school was built on the site, but the new survey revealed sections of the Great Synagogue and traces of what may have been the miqva’ot, or ritual bath complex. Plans are being made to excavate the site next year. To read more about how archaeology has shed light on Napoleon's experience in the city of Vilnius, go to "Digging Napoleon's Dead."

Tuesday, July 28

Rooms Full of Jars Discovered at Israel’s Tel Kabri

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The latest excavations at the 4,000-year-old site of Tel Kabri in northern Israel have uncovered three more rooms with plastered floors containing storage jars, and there are more rooms in the palace complex to be excavated. The palace at Tel Kabri, which resembles Crete’s palace of Knossos, was inhabited continuously for more than 250 years and features banquet rooms and halls. Last season, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa and Eric H. Cline of The George Washington University discovered a room full of storage jars that had contained an aromatic red wine. “The goal of this season was to further understand the Canaanite palatial economy, by expanding the excavation beyond the area where the jars were found last season. We were hoping to find additional store rooms, thinking about the palace of Mari and the palaces in Crete from the same period—but to find ones that are actually filled with jars was unexpected. This kind of a find is a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about Canaanite economy and rulership,” Yassur-Landau told Haaretz. To read more about this fascinating Bronze Age site, go to "Off the Grid-Tel Kabri." 

Scotland’s Earliest Pictish Fort

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—Carbon dating reveals that a Pictish fort on a sea stack known as Dunnicaer dates to the third or fourth century, making it the oldest-known Pictish fort. Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen needed the assistance of mountaineers to reach the site for excavations conducted last April. Their efforts were rewarded with evidence of ramparts of timber and stone, floors, and a hearth. “The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site,” archaeologist Gordon Noble said in a press release. “It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high-status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the third century,” he added. In fact, erosion may have eventually prompted the Picts to move along the coast to what is now Dunnottar Castle, first built in the early medieval period. To read more about the Picts and their writing systems, go to "It's All Pictish to Me."

560,000-Year-Old Human Tooth Unearthed in France

TAUTAVEL, FRANCE—The Guardian reports that a large adult tooth was discovered at Arago Cave in southwestern France. “A large adult tooth—we can’t say if it was from a male or female—was found during excavations of soil we know to be between 550,000 and 580,000 years old, because we used different dating methods. This is a major discovery because we have very few human fossils from this period in Europe,” paleoanthropologist Amélie Vialet told Agence France-Presse. The tooth is about 100,000 years older than Tautavel man, whose remains were unearthed at the site it 1971, and could represent the oldest human remains ever found in France. To read about the oldest art in France, go to "A Chauvet Primer."

Burials of High-Status Leaders Identified at Jamestown

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery and Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley and his team have identified the remains of four men buried in the chancel of the 1608 church at Jamestown as the Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Capt. William West with archaeological evidence, skeletal analyses, chemical testing, 3-D technology, and genealogical research. “Two of the men, Archer and Hunt, were with the first expedition, which established Jamestown in May 1607. And the other two, Wainman and West, arrived with Lord De La Warr and helped save the colony three years later,” James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, said in a press release. Hunt, an Anglican minister, is thought to have been buried simply, in the grave without a coffin. Archer died during the “starving time” at Jamestown and is thought to have been buried in a coffin with a captain’s leading staff. This burial also contained a small silver box that may have served as a Roman Catholic reliquary. Lead in the bones of the third burial suggests the deceased was affluent and had eaten from pewter and glazed wares. This man, thought to be Wainman, had been buried in an anthropomorphic wooden coffin. The last of the chancel burials is thought to belong to Capt. William West, who was killed in 1610 during a skirmish with the Powhatan. He was also buried in an anthropomorphic coffin. A micro-CT scan revealed the highly decayed remnants of a military sash, thought to have been made of silk and adorned with silver fringe and spangles. “The presence of the artifacts and the location of the graves in the church’s most sacred space, the chancel, both indicate the high status of the four men and their importance to the early history of the Jamestown venture,” said William Kelso, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery. To read about a discovery at Jamestown that made our Top 10 list, go to "1608 Church-Jamestown, Virginia."

Monday, July 27

Medieval Skeletons Unearthed in Scotland

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—More than 20 medieval skeletons were discovered in a shallow grave on the grounds of Robert Gordon College by a work crew installing cables. The site is thought to have been a burial from the Blackfriars Abbey, which was founded in 1230 and destroyed by Protestant reformers in 1560. “At the time the friars from both Blackfriars Abbey and Greyfriars were kicked out of the city and the abbeys left in ruins,” local historian Diane Morgan told The Scotsman. The skeletons are thought to date to the thirteenth century. “This find is very interesting and in the thirteenth century people could pay money to be buried on sanctified grounds,” she added. To read about another medieval mass grave, go to "A Parisian Plague."

First Civilizations Challenged by Climate Change

MIAMI, FLORIDA—Abrupt climate change may have affected some of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent, according to a study conducted by an international team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The team made a high-resolution image of a sediment core taken from Neor Lake in northwest Iran that recorded conditions and changes in climate over the past 13,000 years, and measured the physical properties of its layers. “The high-resolution nature of this record afforded us the rare opportunity to examine the influence of abrupt climate change on early human societies. We see that transitions in several major civilizations across this region, as evidenced by the available historical and archaeological records, coincided with episodes of high atmospheric dust; higher fluxes of dust are attributed to drier conditions across the region over the last 5,000 years,” Arash Sharifi of the University of Miami said in a press release. To read about a 5,000-year-old civilization in what is now Iran, go to "The World in Between."

What Motivated Viking Raiders?

YORK, ENGLAND—Steve Ashby of the University of York thinks that Viking raiders of the eighth century were motivated by more than the acquisition of wealth. “The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age,” he said in a press release. Ashby argues that Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Celtic metal objects were not melted down because they served as reminders of successful raids and became symbols of status and power. And those who participated in raiding parties not only accumulated wealth, they built their reputations. “The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself,” Ashby explained. To read about a discovery presenting other novel ideas about the Vikings, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."  

La Corona Team Discovers Maya Stela & Hieroglyphic Panels

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA—Marcello A. Canuto of Tulane University and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala announced at a press conference the discovery of a fifth-century stela at the Maya site of El Achiotal, located to the east of La Corona. “This stela portrays an early king during one of the more poorly understood periods of ancient Maya history,” Canuto said in a press release. Graduate student Luke Auld-Thomas found fragments of the stela in a shrine that had been built for it during a time of political upheaval in the central Maya area. The archaeologists, who are part of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala, also uncovered two hieroglyphic panels in a corner room at La Corona’s palace. These texts, which tell of rituals of kingly accession, had been missed by looters. “The fact that the stela and these panels were preserved by the ancient Maya themselves long after they were first carved adds a new wrinkle to our interpretation of how much the ancient Maya valued and strove to preserve their own history,” Canuto said. To read about the excavation of another Maya site in Guatemala, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."