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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, August 12

Conservators Begin New Work on H.L. Hunley

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—The Post and Courier reports that conservators have begun to scrape away the layer of sand and shell encasing the hull of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which went down in Charleston Harbor in 1864 just minutes after it sank the Union warship USS Housatonic. The layer, known as concretion, has obscured many of the specific features of the vessel that scientists are interested in studying, especially evidence of bullet holes or other damage that might reveal clues about why the submarine sank. "We have been waiting for this a long time," says Nestor Gonzalez, associate director Warren Lasch Conservation Center, which is responsible for the project. "We will know if there was any damage to the submarine pre-sinking or post-sinking." The painstaking work, carried out using dental chisels and small hammers to remove concretion that is in some places a couple of inches thick, could take up to a year to complete.      

Traces of Ancient Painkiller Found in Colorado

DENVER, COLORADO—Western Digs reports that Durham University archaeochemist Denise Regan has discovered traces of salicylic acid, a precursor compound of aspirin, on an unassuming, 1,300-year-old ceramic sherd unearthed in a rock shelter in eastern Colorado. The discovery could be the earliest proven use of the chemical in North America, and offers a unique glimpse at prehistoric medicinal practices. Derived from willow bark, salicylic acid is still used by some Native groups today to cure aches. “If you talk to the Arapahoe or the Cheyenne, they’ll use willow bark either as a tea with the leaves or they will soften the bark in boiling water and chew on it for toothaches and as a pain reliever,” says Regan. She believes the sherd itself could have come from a vessel that was reserved for preparing poultices or tea. "I think it’s reasonable to infer that this pot was used for medicinal purposes and not to cook food. If it was used to cook food we would’ve more than likely found something else in there.” 

Can Barley Tell the Tale of Civilization?

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT—Researchers have long argued about the role of climate change in the rise, development, and collapse of societies. According to NBC news, a newly released paper helps to clarify this relationship. A team of scientists led by Frank Hole of Yale University sampled both modern and ancient grains of barley from sites across the Near East and examined the effects of the large droughts that are known to have occurred in the region for the last ten millennia. Variations in the prevalence and health of the barley, which can be detected by the varying levels of carbon isotopes in the grains, are a key to understanding how, for example, the lack of water forced some farmers, especially those inland, to develop more sophisticated irrigation systems and even to turn to other crops, while those on the coast where water was more plentiful continued to cultivate barley for beer, bread, and other foodstuffs. 

Kushite Cemetery in Sudan

DANGEIL, SUDAN—A new book covering more than a decade of excavations by the Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project shares the story of a stunning site and an extraordinary collection of exotic artifacts, reports Livescience. The site’s cemetery, which was first discovered in 2002, dates to about 2,000 years ago, a period when the Kushite Kingdom controlled a large amount of territory and exerted a great deal of power in the area. Although the Kushites often built pyramids to bury their dead, these graves are entirely underground and contain such impressive artifacts as a silver ring depicting the god Amun and a faience box decorated with prominent eyes—perhaps to protect against the evil eye—as well as several artifacts associated with archery buried with a man who had clearly been an archer in his life. The work of the project continues and the researchers hope to find the full extent of the cemetery in the future. 

Monday, August 11

Epidemic of Violence in the Ancient Southwest

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON— A new study of human remains from southwest Colorado suggests that ancestral Pueblo people living in the Mesa Verde area between 1140 and 1180 experienced a particularly violent era, reports Washington State University News. Archaeologist Tim Kohler and his colleagues found that almost nine out of ten sets of human remains dating to this period show evidence of skull and arm trauma from violent blows. “If we’re identifying that much trauma, many were dying a violent death,” says Kohler. However, human remains from the nearby northern Rio Grande area that date to the same time show much less evidence of trauma. According to Kohler, cultural differences between the two areas may explain the discrepancy in levels of violence. In the Rio Grande area, people did not rely on kin groups as much as in Mesa Verde, and joined larger groups such as medicine societies that spanned separate villages and promoted links between family groups. Kohler also sees more specialization of crafts in the Northern Rio Grande, which could be significant. "When you don’t have specialization in societies, there’s a sense in which everybody is a competitor because everybody is doing the same thing,” he notes. By the late thirteenth century, the Mesa Verde region was completely abandoned. 

When to Stop Digging?

HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND—How do archaeologists decide when to call it a day? At the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, modern Silchester, project director Mike Fulford of the University of Reading says it’s time to stop digging more than 100 years after Victorian archaeologists first began to explore the site, reports the Guardian. “Nothing left there except gravel and natural geology," says Fulford, "nothing of any interest whatsoever." But that has certainly not been the case over the four decades that Fulford has been digging at Silchester, one of the best-preserved and completely excavated towns in Roman Britain. In addition to impressive standing remains, the site has produced some of the most important and compelling ancient Roman artifacts in Britain including the island’s oldest olive pit, dog, raven and cat burials, a spectacular knife depicting two mating dogs, a soldier’s folding skillet, as well as important pre-Roman finds including what may the largest Iron Age hall ever found in Britain. Yet despite the extensive excavations, archaeologists have not yet been able to figure out why was this major town abandoned in the sixth century. With the last digging season over and 6,000 tons of excavated soil waiting to use as backfill, Fulford is content to let that question remain a mystery.  

Excavations begin at the Temple of Artemis

Hurriyet Daily News reports that archaeologists are preparing to restart excavations at the site of the Temple of Artemis at the ancient city of Ephesus. Once considered one of the seven wonders of the world, the massive temple was completeted in 550 B.C and constructed completely of marble. Little remains of the temple on the surface, and digs at the site are hampered by the area's high water table. A regional drought will actually help the effort, according to Sabine Ladstatter, director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute and excavation director at Ephesus. "This year we are lucky because the ground water withdrew," she says. "We normally do it with pumps. Now we will progress faster. We are planning to work until the rainy season." The last dig at the site took place twenty years ago and archaeologists still have a number of questions about the temple. "We will seek [the] answer to questions like was there a church in the area of the Temple of Artemis?" says Ladstatter, who hopes the team will reach the site's Roman levels.   

Friday, August 08

Medieval Manor House and Buildings Unearthed in England

LEICESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND—A tithe barn and shop buildings have been discovered at the site of a medieval manor house in central England’s village of Croxton Kerrial. “We have the house and when we stripped off the topsoil, we found a tithe barn measuring 85 feet long by 23 feet wide which we are in the process of excavating. We have also excavated an area of cobbled stones surrounded by buildings, which we believe would have been a dairy, a blacksmiths, and a bakery,” Tony Connolly, chair of the Framland Local Archaeology Group, told BBC News. The team also recovered a metal strap end for a belt engraved with a dragon, and the pieces of a twelfth-century jug from a well containing “beautifully clear water.”  

14th-Century Polynesian Settlement Found in New Zealand

WHITIANGA, NEW ZEALAND—The Waikato Times reports that a temporary Polynesian settlement that was reused over the course of the fourteenth century has been unearthed at the site of a new housing development, located on the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand’s North Island. Evidence of cooking, gardening, making tools, and repairing waka, or canoes, has been found. A large, greasy earth oven lined with stones may have been used for cooking seals. Moa fish hooks, basalt and chert, and a midden were also uncovered. Makere Rika-Heke, Heritage New Zealand Maori heritage advisor, said that the discovery is a reaffirmation of some of the old traditions kept by local people. 

First Identification Made of Remains From Florida Reform School

TAMPA, FLORIDA—The first set of remains of the children buried at the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys has been identified. Records from the reform school, which closed in 2011, listed only 31 burials on the property, but additional graves were found under roads and overgrown trees, away from the crosses that marked the recorded graves. George Owen Smith was 14 years old when he disappeared from the school in 1940. His remains, wrapped in a shroud and buried in an unmarked grave, were identified through a DNA match to his sister. “We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was. But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers,” Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida told CBS News.

Etruscan Artifacts Found Well Preserved in Tuscan Well

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA—A well at the site of Cetamura del Chianti in Italy has yielded artifacts from the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval periods. “The rich assemblage of materials in bronze, silver, lead, and iron, along with the abundant ceramics and remarkable evidence of organic remains, create an unparalleled opportunity for the study of culture, religion, and daily life in Chianti and the surrounding region,” Nancy de Grummond of Florida State University told Science Daily. Her team recovered an Etruscan wine bucket decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla, and another Etruscan vessel adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard. Many objects made of wood, including parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool, and an item that might have been a child’s top were also found. Grape seeds from the well should offer information about wine in Tuscany between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. “Offerings to the gods were found inside in the form of hundreds of miniature votive cups, some 70 bronze and silver coins, and numerous pieces used in games of fortune, such as astragali, which are akin to jacks,” she added.