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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, February 11

Shamsheer Studied With Non-Destructive Tests

LONDON, ENGLAND—A curved single-edged sword called a shamsheer has been studied using metallography and neutron diffraction by a team led by Eliza Barzagli of the University of Florence. The sword, made in a Persian design, had been crafted in India in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Samples were collected from an area of the weapon that had already been damaged to be examined under a microscope. Then the sword was sent to the ISIS pulsed spallation neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, for non-invasive testing. The results of the tests revealed that the sword, now housed at the Wallace Collection, was made of wootz steel, which is quite pure and has a high carbon content, characteristic of high-quality swords made in India and Central Asia. Such cast pieces of metal were cooled slowly and forged carefully at low temperatures. This particular sword was probably used in battle. “A non-destructive method able to identify which of the shiny surface blades are actually of wootz steel is very welcome,” Barzagli told Eureka Alert. To read about a similar study, see "Army Assists With Study of Anglo-Saxon Sword."

Excavation of the Nissia Begins Off the Coast of Cyprus

NICOSIA, CYPRUS—A shipwreck dating to the Ottoman period is being excavated off the southeast coast of Cyprus by the Maritime Archaeological Research Laboratory of the University of Cyprus, in collaboration with the department of antiquities. Called the Nissia, “it is the only shipwreck of this period known in Cyprus, and one of the few that are under investigation in the eastern Mediterranean,” the Cyprus antiquities department announced. The Cyprus Mail reports that three iron cannons, wooden rigging, bullets, ceramics, glass tableware, bricks, and a section of the ship’s hull have been found so far. The project members also want to protect the site, which is a favorite of recreational divers, from looting and wear and tear. For more on nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Evidence of Nighthawking Found at Hadrian’s Wall

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—Evidence of illegal digging has been found at a center section of Hadrian’s Wall, constructed in the second century at the edge of the Roman frontier. The police and officials from English Heritage suspect that metal detectors were used to look for artifacts because of the discoveries that have been made at the nearby site of Vindolanda Roman fort. “The trust deplores the illegal use of metal detecting,” Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust, told The Telegraph. Volunteers have been recruited to patrol and inspect stretches of the wall for signs of damage. “The objects they are stealing belong to the landowner, in this case the National Trust, and the history they are stealing belongs to all of us,” said Mark Harrison, English Heritage national crime advisor. To read more about metal detecting in England, see "Heads Won, Tales Lost."

Ancient Pueblo Indian Rock Art Damaged by Vandals

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Trash, motorcycle tracks, and graffiti were discovered at Boca Negra Arroyo in the Petroglyph National Monument. The fencing was down, semi-trailer tires had been dumped in the canyon, traces of campfires were found, and an archaeologically sensitive dry cave had been spray-painted with graffiti. “We have to be careful and sensitive so we don’t damage the rocks and create our own markings. We have a variety of methods to try, ranging from high-pressure water, to a pumice removal method to a new product, an environmentally friendly solvent. In the very near future, we’ll have it looking better,” Dennis Vásquez, the National Park Service superintendent at the Petroglyph National Monument, told The Associated Press.

Tuesday, February 10

1300 Edition of the Magna Carta Found in Kent

SANDWICH, KENT—An edition of the Magna Carta produced in 1300 has been discovered in an archive in eastern England. The original Magna Carta, issued by King John, was signed in 1215 and established the rule of law and equality before the law. The 1300 version was issued by King Edward I and was marked with a royal seal and belonged to the town of Sandwich. About a third of the Sandwich copy is missing and it no longer retains its seal, however. The document had been filed inside a nineteenth-century scrapbook, along with a copy of the Charter of the Forest, which provided some rights and privileges to the common people. “It must have been much more widely distributed than previously thought because if Sandwich had one…the chances are it went out to a lot of other towns. And it is very likely that there are one or two out there somewhere that no one has spotted yet,” Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia told The Guardian. To read about archaeology in the region, see "The Kings of Kent."

Roman Roadside Cemetery Unearthed at Ipplepen

EXETER, ENGLAND—Fifteen skeletons were recovered from a roadside cemetery at a Romano-British settlement by volunteers, students, and archaeologists from the University of Exeter. The site was discovered by metal detectorists who notified England’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. Research has shown that one of the skeletons dates to some 250 to 350 years after the Roman period. Additional research will try to determine when the roadside cemetery first came into use, and if the people buried there grew up in the region. “As the excavation progressed, it became clear that we were dealing with the largest Romano-British cemetery discovered in Devon and that it had huge potential to develop our understanding of settlements and how people lived in the southwest 2,000 years ago. Then the radiocarbon date of A.D. 655-765 brought even further revelations; everyone was very surprised. It suggests continuation of the settlement after the Roman period and shows that life carried on at Ipplepen rather than falling out of use,” said Danielle Wootton, Devon Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the University of Exeter. For an unusual glimpse of life in this period, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."

4,000-Year-Old Child’s Grave Exposed in Orkney

ORKNEY, SCOTLAND—The 4,000-year-old remains of a child thought to be between the ages of ten and 12 at the time of death were discovered on the island of Sanday last week. BBC News reports that the grave, located near the coast, was exposed by winter storms and high tides and spotted by a tour guide who alerted archaeologists. The child’s skeleton has been excavated and will be analyzed by an osteoarchaeology team. To see a sequence of images showing the excavation, go to the website of the Sanday Ranger.  

Colonial-Era Air Quality Recorded in Andean Ice

COLUMBUS, OHIO—Paolo Gabrielli and Lonnie Thompson of The Ohio State University have studied cores of ice taken from Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap that record 1,200 years’ worth of wet and dry, dusty seasons. They found antimony, arsenic, bismuth, molybdenum, and lead in the ice dating back to the years before Spanish rule, but in amounts that are likely to coincide with natural contamination sources, such as volcanic eruptions. Much larger quantities of the elements were captured in the seemingly clean ice that dates to just before 1600. Such pollution persisted until the early 1800s, when South American countries declared independence from Spain. Most of the pollution was probably produced in Potosí, located in modern-day Bolivia, where the Spanish mined and refined silver on a large scale by grinding silver ore, which contains more lead than silver, into a powder and mixing it with mercury. “The fact that we can detect pollution in ice from a pristine high-altitude location is indicative of the continental significance of this deposition. Only a significant source of pollution could travel so far, and affect the chemistry of the snow on a remote place like Quelccaya,” Gabrielli said. For another recent discovery in the region, see "Inca Ceremonial Site Uncovered in Peru."

Monday, February 09

Medieval Christian Chapel Unearthed in Yorkshire

LEYBURN, ENGLAND—Foundations of a Christian church built before the Norman Conquest of 1066 have been unearthed in North Yorkshire by a team from On-Site Archaeology. The remains of a young man and an older woman were also found. They had been buried in crouching positions and are thought to have been Christian burials, due to the east-west alignment of the bodies. Projects officer Graham Bruce thinks the site may have been a family chapel dating back to Saxon or early Norman times. “Interestingly, the Doomsday Book mentions two manors in Leyburn and this may relate to the abandoned settlement,” he told The Advertiser. Animal bones, flint tools, and pottery from the Bronze Age and Iron Age were also uncovered. For more on this era of British history, see "Faces of Medieval Scots Reconstructed."

Animal Bone May Have Told Fortunes in Third-Century Japan

SAKURAI, JAPAN—The right scapula of a boar, discovered in an oval-shaped hole with pottery, a wooden object, and other animal bones, suggests that the third-century A.D. shaman queen Himiko and leaders of Japan’s Yamato State practiced a fortune-telling method imported from China. The pit was found in the Makimuku ruins, thought to be the location of Himiko’s burial place. The bone bears three round burn marks that were probably made with a stick. Archaeologist Kaoru Terasawa of the Research Center for Makimukugaku explained that fortune telling with animal bones gradually became an official activity in Japan. The pit “is significant in thinking about how animal bone fortune telling performed at the grass-roots level during the Yayoi period evolved into a part of the national system,” he told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about a Roman artifact discovered in Japan, see "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

Identifying the Buried at London’s Bedlam Cemetery

LONDON, ENGLAND—Volunteers have examined parish burial records kept at the London Metropolitan Archives and compiled a database of the estimated 5,000 people who were buried in Bedlam cemetery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Named for the nearby Bethlem Hospital, which housed the mentally ill, the cemetery was established in 1569 during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. It is being excavated to clear the site for new Crossrail train tunnels and a station. “These people lived through Civil Wars, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the birth of modern industry, plague, and the Great Fire,” lead archaeologist Jay Carver told London 24. Among the dead known to have been buried at Bedlam were Sir Ambrose Nicholas, Lord Mayor of London in 1575; and Dr. John Lamb, astrologer to the First Duke of Buckingham. All of the skeletons will be reburied at another location. To read in-depth about the excavation of another London cemetery, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

How Hominins Ate Their Starchy Veggies

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lost two bitter taste genes that are still present in chimpanzees, according to a study conducted by anthropological geneticist George Perry of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues. Early hominins probably found wild yams and other tubers to be too bitter to eat, but as human ancestors began to cook their food, they may have been able to tolerate the taste of a wider range of tuberous plants and take advantage of their calories. At the same time, losing the bitter taste genes and eventually domesticating bitter squashes, gourds, and yams furthered the process. The study also found that modern humans carry an average of six copies, and as many as 20 copies, of the salivary amylase gene, which has been thought to help digest the sugars in starchy foods. Chimps, Neanderthals, and Denisovans carry only one or two copies of this gene. “This doesn’t mean that earlier hominins weren’t eating more starch, but perhaps they weren’t getting all of the same benefits as modern humans,” Perry told Science. In addition, modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lost the gene that helps build strong chewing muscles, supporting the idea that Homo erectus, a common ancestor, could cook. To read more about the genetics of our extinct cousins, see "Denisovan DNA."