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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, September 10

Pilgrimage Church Excavated in Hallaton, England

LEICESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND—The remains of a man and a woman who had been buried holding hands have been uncovered at the Chapel of St. Morrell, an ancient pilgrimage site in the English Midlands. The skeletons are thought to date to the fourteenth century, since nine other skeletons of similar age have been unearthed at the site. Stones had been placed upon some of those bodies at burial. “This was a tradition popular in eastern Europe with the idea of keeping the dead down,” archaeologist Vicky Score of the University of Leicester told The Leicester Mercury. Tiles from a Roman building were also discovered beneath the medieval chapel. “It shows this ground has been used as a special sort of place by people for at least 2,000 years,” she said. To read about the discovery of a forgotten graveyard in London, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature article "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."   

Rock Art Chemistry Analyzed in Australia

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Working with the people of the Jawoyn culture, Barbara Stuart, Alexandria Hunt, and Paul Thomas of the University of Technology, Sydney, are analyzing the chemistry of ancient rock art in Arnhem Land to understand how the materials were used by the artists, and how their techniques changed over time. “We need to take samples but we try to take as small amount as we can so that we don’t visually alter the paintings at all,” Hunt told Phys.org. Her tests, employing the infrared beam at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, will determine what the pigments were made from. “Once I have that information I’ll be able to work out the age of the paintings,” she explained.   

New Map Reveals Stonehenge’s Hidden Landscape

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—Information gathered with high-tech equipment during a four-year project to survey the area around Stonehenge has been converted into a new digital map. Among the discoveries are two massive pits that are older than Stonehenge and appear to form astronomical alignments on midsummer’s day. Stonehenge was eventually built upon the intersection point of the eastern pit’s alignment with the rising sun and the western pit’s alignment at sunset. Also predating Stonehenge was a burial mound containing a massive wooden building. Wolfgang Neuber of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute thinks it was used in burial rituals until it was later covered in chalk. Another huge henge known as Durrington Walls was found to the northeast. Its 70 massive stones or posts had been pushed over or laid flat. “This radically changes our view of Stonehenge. In the past we had this idea that Stonehenge was standing in splendid isolation, but it wasn’t… it’s absolutely huge,” Vince Gaffney, head of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project at Birmingham University, told The Guardian  

Lost Franklin Expedition Ship Found in the Canadian Arctic

OTTAWA, CANADA—After six years of searching, one of the lost Franklin Expedition ships has been discovered in the waters of Victoria Strait near King William Island, right where an Inuit hunter testified in the late 1840s that he saw an abandoned ship sinking in deep water. “This is a great historic event,” Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced at a press conference. Researchers from Parks Canada found the vessel using a recently acquired remotely operated underwater vehicle. “With older technology, you could have come very close to this and not seen it at all,” Harper stated in his comments, reported by CBC News. The sonar images reveal that some of the deck structures survived, but the masts were sheared away, probably by the ice when the ship sank. The contents of the ship “should be very, very well preserved,” added Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. Further investigation should tell if the ship is the HMS Erebus or HMS Terror. “Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum—or wind in our sails—necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin expedition’s crew,” Harper concluded. To read about the discovery of HMS Investigator, a doomed vessel dispatched to search for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, see ARCHAEOLOGY’s feature, “Saga of the Northwest Passage.”  

Tuesday, September 09

Ancient Egyptian Artwork Aids Ecologists

SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA—Ancient Egyptian images of the natural world have helped quantitative ecologist Justin Yeakel of the University of California, Santa Cruz, determine that the drying climate and growing human population have probably made Egypt’s ecosystem progressively less stable. Yeakel used records from paleontology, archaeology, and art, including the work of zoologist Dale Osborne, who examined archaeological and paleontological evidence and compiled a database of when species were represented in artwork and how that changed over time. Six thousand years ago, there were 37 species of large-bodied mammals in Egypt. Today there are only eight. “What was once a rich and diverse mammalian community is very different now. As the number of species declined, one of the primary things that was lost was the ecological redundancy of the system. There were multiple species of gazelles and other small herbivores, which are important because so many different predators prey on them. When there are fewer of those small herbivores, the loss of any one species has a much greater effect on the stability of the system and can lead to additional extinctions,” Yeakel explained.

Domestication of Peach Trees Began in China 7,500 Years Ago

TORONTO, CANADA—Farmers began to domesticate peach trees 7,500 years ago in the lower Yangtze River Valley of southern China, according to a new study of ancient peach pits conducted by Yunfei Zheng and X. Chen of the Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, and Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto. Since peach trees mature quickly and produce fruit within two to three years, the results of selective breeding for preferred traits, such as larger, sweeter peaches, would have been seen by early farmers relatively quickly. And peach pits survive in the archaeological record. By comparing peach pits from six sites that spanned a period of 5,000 years, the scientists determined that peaches were indeed growing larger in the Yangtze Valley, becoming the fruit we recognize today over a period of about 3,000 years. “We’re suggesting that very early on, people understood grafting and vegetative reproduction, because it sped up selection. They had to have been doing such work, because seeds have a lot of genetic variability, and you don’t know if a seed will produce the same fruit as the tree that produced it. It’s a gamble. If they simply started grafting, it would guarantee the orchard would have the peaches they wanted,” Crawford told Science Daily

Circular Viking Fort Discovered in Denmark

KØGE, DENMARK—The Telegraph reports that a circular Viking fortress thought to date to the late tenth century has been discovered in Denmark. Nanna Holm of The Danish Castle Centre and Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University took new, precise laser measurements in a field that was a likely candidate. “We suspected that one fortress was ‘missing’ in the island Zealand," Sindbæk explained. "The location at Vallø was quite the right setting in the landscape: in a place where the old main roads met and reached out to Køge river valley, which in the Viking Age was a navigable fjord and one of Zealand’s best natural harbors. From there we worked our way forward step by step.” Then a geophysical survey revealed the “ghost image” of the fortress, and excavation at the north gate uncovered charred oak posts. “The burned wood in the gates will make it possible to determine the age by means of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology,” Holm added. Further investigation will look for buildings inside the fortress. “We are eager to establish if the castle will turn out to be from the time of King Harald Bluetooth, like the previously known fortresses, or perhaps a former king’s work. As a military fortification from the Viking Age, the monument may help to unravel the position of Zealand in relation to the oldest Danish kingdom,” she said. To read about the discovery of another legendary Norse fortification, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Ireland's Viking Fortress."  

Possible Artifacts from the Franklin Expedition Found

OTTAWA, CANADA—Two artifacts thought to have come from the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition have been discovered on Hat Island in Nunavut. The crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were searching for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic when they were lost in 1848. These artifacts are the first clues to the whereabouts of the lost ships to have been found since 1945, when human remains thought to be members of Sir John Franklin’s team were found buried on King William Island. The first artifact is a davit, an iron fitting from the crane of a Royal Navy ship; the second is a wooden plug to cover the hole for a ship’s anchor. “The iron fitting was lying on the shore, adjacent to a rock, a large rock, and the wooden artifact was a bit farther away, a bit farther from the shoreline,” Nunavut archaeologist Douglas Stenton told CBC News Canada. It’s not clear if the artifacts washed ashore from the sunken ships or if they were carried there by crew members, but they do tell researchers that they’ve been looking in the right place. 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."  

Monday, September 08

Copper Age Settlement Discovered in Central Spain

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Researchers from the University of Tübingen have discovered pottery, millstones, tools, and weights for fishing nets left behind by a previously unknown 4,000-year-old settlement in the central Spanish region of Azután, where a megalithic grave chamber is located. “With the new finds at Azután, we can confirm that there was intensive copper working and settlement also in central Spain. Until now, it was thought that such activity was mostly limited to the fertile coastal regions in the south of the Iberian Peninsula,” Felicitas Schmitt told Phys.org. Lead archaeologist Martin Bartelheim will compare geomagnetic soundings with aerial photographs to determine its size. The team will also investigate ancient paths across Spain used by shepherds and traders.  

Iran’s Hansanlu Revisited

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Archaeologist Michael Danti of Boston University has reviewed the records kept by the archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Archaeological Service of Iran who raced to excavate the Iron Age citadel known as Hasanlu between 1956 and 1977. Located in northern Iran, Hansanlu was destroyed around 800 B.C. More than 200 wounded bodies were preserved in the burn layer, including the remains of three soldiers that were found near a crushed gold bowl. Scholars have wondered if these men were defending the citadel or attacking it. “This was warfare that was designed to wipe out people’s identity and terrify people into submission,” Danti told Live Science. He thinks the three battle-ready soldiers may have been attackers from the Urartu kingdom who were climbing up a staircase when the building collapsed. “I doubt these men were rescuing a valued bowl and many other fine objects with little hope of egress as the citadel burned and its remaining occupants were slaughtered or taken captive,” he concluded. Bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletons of the soldiers and the wounded could tell researchers more about the battle, he adds.

Caryatids Uncovered in Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Discovery News reports that two caryatids have been found at a second sealing wall in the tomb under excavation in Amphipolis. “The right arm of the western Caryatid and the left arm of the eastern one are both outstretched, as if to symbolically prevent anyone attempting to enter the grave,” Greece’s Culture Ministry announced. The marble sculptures, which bear traces of red and blue paint, are of thick-haired women wearing sleeved tunics and earrings. The face of one of the figures survives nearly intact, and fragments of parts of the hands and fingers have been found in the soil. A rectangular marble block decorated with rosettes and blue, red, and yellow paint was also discovered at the bottom of the vault. There’s some speculation that the tomb may hold the remains of a Macedonian queen. To read about excavations at a Hellenistic-period city in Turkey, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Zeugma After the Flood."  

Elite Warrior’s Bone Armor Unearthed in Siberia

OMSK, RUSSIA—A well-preserved suit of bone armor estimated to be between 3,900 and 3,500 years old has been unearthed near the Irtysh River in western Siberia, a region where members of the Krotov culture lived. The armor, however, resembles that of the Samus-Seyminskaya culture, which is located in the Altai Mountains. The armor may have been a gift, obtained through trade, or was perhaps the spoils of war. “It is unique first of all because such armor was highly valued. It was more precious than life, because it saved life. Secondly, it was found in a settlement, and this has never happened before,” contract archaeologist Boris Konikov told The Siberian Times. Scientists are carefully extracting the bones from a block of soil in the lab. “Such armor needs constant care. At the moment we can only fantasize—who dug it into the ground and for what purpose? Was it some ritual or sacrifice? We do not know yet,” added Yury Gerasimov of the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. To read about a mysterious Bronze Age burial unearthed in Siberia, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "The Case of the Missing Incisors."