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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, November 23

Archaeologists Revisit England’s Legendary Glastonbury Abbey

SOMERSET, ENGLAND—Researchers from the University of Reading reassessed and reinterpreted the history of Glastonbury Abbey, a site that has been called the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the earliest Christian church in Britain. The team conducted chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal, and pottery artifacts held in the Glastonbury Abbey Museum, and they conducted a new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds. Lead researcher Roberta Gilchrist noted that a devastating fire in 1184 required the monks to keep the Glastonbury legends alive. “The monks also deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused materials to emphasize the Abbey’s mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers—and the Abbey’s coffers,” Gilchrist said in a press release. “It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages. Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot’s lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.” To read about medieval graffiti in England, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."

First Farmers in the Galilee Grew Beans

REHOVOT, ISRAEL—Seeds from fava beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas have been unearthed at Neolithic sites in the Galilee. “This is an important discovery, enabling a deeper understanding of the agricultural revolution in the southern Near East,” researchers from the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a press release. The large number of fava beans unearthed at the site of Ahihud, where seeds of a uniform size were found husked and placed in storage pits, suggests that they were the preferred crop as many as 10,000 years ago. These beans could have been used for food and for future crops. “Despite the importance of cereals in nutrition that continues to this day, it seems that in the region we examined (west of the Jordan River), it was the legumes, full of flavor and protein, which were actually the first species to be domesticated,” they explained. To read more, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel."

DNA Tracks Adaptations in Europe’s First Farmers

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—An international team of scientists has identified genes that changed during and after the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in Europe some 8,500 years ago. The DNA, obtained from 230 ancient individuals from Europe, Siberia, and Turkey, supports the idea that Europe’s first farmers migrated from Anatolia and adapted to the European environment with changes associated with height, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, fatty acid metabolism, vitamin D levels, light skin pigmentation, and blue eye color. Other variants are linked to the risk of celiac disease, which may have been important in adapting to an agricultural diet, and genes associated with the immune system. “The Neolithic period involved an increase in population density, with people living close to one another and to domesticated animals,’” Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide explained in a press release. “It will be interesting to study selection in domesticated animals and to see if there is coevolution between them and the people who were domesticating them,” added Iain Mathieson of Harvard University Medical School. To read more about Europe's first farmers, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Extinction of Megafauna May Have Aided Pumpkin Domestication

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Some 12,000 years ago, mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and other megafauna ate wild species of pumpkin and squash and distributed the seeds in their dung. At this time, such wild members of the cucurbita family were bitter and toxic to humans and smaller animals. When the megafauna went extinct, the cucurbita plants lost their distribution system and their preferred landscape, which was created by the large animals. “We performed an ancient DNA study of cucurbita including modern wild plants, domesticated plants, and archaeological samples from multiple locations. The results suggest, or confirm, that some lineages domesticated by humans are now extinct in the wild,” George Perry of Penn State said in a press release. The team found that that the widely diverse plants may have been domesticated at least six different times in six different places, but were probably not used for food at first. “Rather, they might have been useful for a variety of other purposes like the bottle gourd, as containers, tools, fishnet floats, etc. At some point, as a symbiotic relationship developed, palatability evolved, but the details of that process aren’t known at the present,” explained Logan Kistler, NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Warwick, and a recent Penn State postdoctoral fellow. For more on megafauna remains, go to "Butchered Mammoth Bones Unearthed in Michigan."

Friday, November 20

Well-Preserved Homo Erectus Skull Discovered in China

HEFEI, CHINA—An “uncommonly well-preserved” Homo erectus skull estimated to be between 150,000 and 412,000 years old has been unearthed in east China at the Hualongdong archaeological site by a team from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). Named “Dongzhi Man,” after the county in Anhui Province where it was found, the skull was found among stone tools, teeth and other bone fragments, and more than 6,000 bones from animals, including stegodon, giant tapir, and giant pandas. “All of this indicates the site is exactly where the Dongzhi men lived as we found the bones of the animals were broken in quite an unnatural way. To put it more precisely, they were cut or chopped with tools into small pieces, meaning the animals were eaten or used as sacrifices,” researcher Liu Wu told Xinhua News. Further tests will help pinpoint the age of the fossilized skull.

Congenital Syphilis Detected in Fourteenth-Century Austria

VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Medical University of Vienna identified congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to child, in human skeletal remains from among the 9,000 burials in the cathedral square of St. Pölten, Austria. The burial dates to as early as A.D. 1320. “We found so-called Hutchinson’s teeth with central notches and converging edges and mulberry molars, which are characteristic signs of syphilis,” Karl Großschmidt and Fabian Kanz said in a press release. The diagnosis, made by examining thin sections of bones and teeth with a special light microscopy technique, will be confirmed with biochemical methods. It had been thought that syphilis spread through Europe in the late fifteenth century, after explorers made contact with the New World. To read about evidence of eighteenth-century treatments for diseases including syphilis, go to "Medicine on the High Seas."

“Hobbit” Teeth Analyzed

TOKYO, JAPAN— reports that an analysis of 40 teeth from the nine known specimens of Homo floresiensis has been conducted by scientists from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, the University of Wollongong in Australia, and the National Research and Development Center for Archaeology in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis lived some 18,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores and stood about three feet tall. The team compared the “hobbit” teeth with the teeth from 490 modern humans and the teeth of extinct human cousins. Although the hobbits’ teeth were similar in size to modern human teeth from individuals of about the same stature, they had traits similar to early hominins and even more advanced hominins. The scientists concluded in the journal PLOS ONE that the hobbits were a species separate from modern humans, and probably descended from Homo erectus living on the island with limited resources. To read about ancient dental work, go to "Paleo-Dentistry."

Skeletal Remains in Cistern Linked to Aztec Pulque God

TLAXCALA, MEXICO—Excavations at the Zultépec-Tecoaque archaeological site, home to the Acolhua between A.D. 1200 and 1521, have uncovered human remains in a cistern, a throne made from volcanic rock, and a cylindrical stone carved with the image of the Aztec god Ometochtli. “To date we’ve dug 13 cisterns, but this is the first time we have found such an important figure buried in one of them. This particular character was identified with the Ometochtli glyph, associated with the pulque and drunkenness deity, represented by a rabbit,” Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Enrique Martínez Vargas told Mexico News Daily. Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, was produced in large quantities at Zultépec-Tecoaque. The cistern also contained pulque carafes, and the cooked vertebrae and ribs of at least three different infants. “The remains could have been brought from some other place. We’ll be able to determine this after analyzing the bones,” added archaeologist Bertha Flores. To read about excavations in Mexico City, go to "Under Mexico City."

Thursday, November 19

Second Possible Medieval “Witch Girl” Unearthed in Italy

SAN CALOCERO, ITALY—The remains of a severely malnourished young girl have been found in a pit covered with heavy stone slabs by a team led by Philippe Pergola of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology. The burial suggests that the girl, between the ages of 15 and 17 when she died sometime between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, was perceived to be dangerous. She had been burned, taken by her elbows, and thrown into the pit so that her chin almost touched her breastbone. “We can’t say whether she was alive or not when she was burnt. Fire attacked her body when soft tissues were still present, so it could have occurred before death or soon after,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News. The skeleton were unearthed near the spot where the remains of another malnourished individual, dubbed a “witch girl,” was found two years ago. It is unlikely that the two were related, but if radiocarbon dating shows that they are from the same time period, scientists will try to compare their DNA. To read about a similar discovery, go to "Witches of Cornwall."

Roman Coin Hoard Discovered in Switzerland

UEKEN, SWITZERLAND—A farmer in northern Switzerland discovered a cache of 1,700-year-old Roman coins in his cherry orchard and alerted the regional archaeological service. “The orchard where the coins were found was never built on. It is land that has always been farmed,” archaeologist Georg Matter told The Guardian. Numbering more than 4,000, the bronze coins may have been worth a year or two of wages and are in excellent condition. They were probably hidden in small leather pouches shortly after they were minted, around A.D. 294. A Roman town was discovered nearby a few months ago. To read about a similar discovery in England, go to "Seaton Down Hoard."

Well-Preserved 18th-Century Trade Center Excavated in Qatar

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—In the eighteenth century, Qatar’s historic city of Al Zubarah had a successful pearl fishery and was a center of commerce thought to have been founded by people from the Utub tribe in Kuwait. “The pearls from Al Zubarah were sent by sea to India. From there, they were sent on to the rest of the world. In Al Zubarah, we also found porcelain from China and Japan and coins from Germany, so it was a thriving global trading network, 250 years ago,” Moritz Kinzel of the Institute of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen told Science Nordic. Kinzel and his team have so far excavated a residential neighborhood, a market area, and a palace, and found pottery, decorated building fragments, wooden boxes, and stone weights used by pearl divers. “Al Zubarah was neither under the influence of the Ottoman Empire or the British. People could trade freely and build their own businesses. But it didn’t last,” Kinzel said. The city was destroyed by the Sultan of Oman in 1811. But as Al Zubarah was forgotten and reclaimed by sand, it was also protected from modern development. To read more about archaeology in the Persian Gulf, go to "Archaeology Island."

New Survey Conducted at Chile’s Monte Verde

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University has worked at Monte Verde in southern Chile since 1977. It had been thought that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in the Americas some 13,000 years ago, but Dillehay’s work at Monte Verde helped scientists to push back that date. Now he has led an international team of archaeologists, geologists, and botanists in an archaeological and geological survey of Monte Verde that found cooking pits with burned and unburned bone and scatters of simple stone tools. “One of the curious things about it is that unlike what we found before, a significant percentage, about 34 percent, were from non-local materials. Most of them probably come from the coast but some of them probably come from the Andes and maybe even the other side of the Andes,” Dillehay said in a press release. Some of the bones came from very large animals that were probably killed and butchered elsewhere between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago. Dillehay thinks people may have traveled through Monte Verde while traveling from the coast to the Andes during the summer months because it may have been more walkable than the surrounding bogs and wetlands, and the site had stone for making tools. To read more about the New World's earliest settlers, go to "America, in the Beginning."