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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, June 18

Oil Boom Archaeology

TIOGA, NORTH DAKOTA—Archaeologists struggling to find jobs may have a surprising new place to look. According to the Great Falls Tribune, the oil boom in North Dakota has created an urgent need for professionals to fulfill the state’s requirements that the land be thoroughly surveyed and documented by trained archaeologists before oil drilling takes place. There are now more than 50 cultural resource management firms and several hundred archaeologists working in North Dakota looking for evidence of past human habitation in the region, which includes, among many types of sites, settler graveyards, Native American stone circles, and homesteader farms.

The Origins of Bronze Age Shell Beads

YORK, ENGLAND—Using a variety of non-destructive techniques, scientists have pinned down the species of shells used to make beads unearthed at the Early Bronze Age site of Great Cornard in southeastern England. Worked shells beads are notoriously difficult to identify by species, since most identifying features of the shells are destroyed while the beads are being made. There had been speculation that the Great Cornard beads were made of the Mediterranean thorny oyster, which would have been brought to Britain via extensive trade networks. But thanks to amino acid analysis and scanning electron microscopy, the team was able to identify the beads' raw material as dog whelks and tusk shells. "Dog whelks and tusk shells were likely to be available locally so these people did not have to travel far to get hold of the raw materials for their beads," said archaeologist Beatrice Demarchi in a University of York press release. 

Stonehenge’s Singing Stones

SALISBURY PLAIN, ENGLAND—Could the massive standing stones of Stonehenge also have made sounds? The New York Times reports that a team of researchers from London’s Royal College of Art hypothesizes that some of the dolmens make a loud, clanging noise when struck, producing a high–pitched sound similar to a large bell being rung. The stones’ sonorous qualities may be a result of the presence of magnesium and iron in the rocks. The study’s authors believe that the ancient inhabitants of the Salisbury Plain may have been aware of these properties, and chosen specific types of rocks to construct Stonehenge, some of which had to brought from as much as 200 miles away, a monumental undertaking four millennia ago.

Safeguarding Renegade Canyon’s Petroglyphs

CHINA LAKE, CALIFORNIA—Renegade Canyon in southern California has a striking juxtaposition of old and new—15,000 years of human habitation recorded on the canyon’s walls in some of the country’s most spectacular rock art at the heart of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station where the Navy tests advanced bomb and missile systems. Next year, reports the Los Angeles Times, the Navy will begin the first systematic efforts to document the images of hunters, animals, reptiles, and spirit deities that cover the canyon’s walls, a daunting task considering that there are more than one million known examples, and that archaeologists are always finding more. The Navy has taken its stewardship of the canyon’s artwork seriously since the base was established in 1943, protecting the petroglyphs from both weapons tests and vandalism, but this new program to document the works is a large step towards their continued preservation and survival.

Tuesday, June 17

Foundation Excavated at Joseph Smith Historic Site

NAUVOO, ILLINOIS—According to The Quincy Herald-Whig, a team of volunteers is assisting archaeologist Paul DeBarthe with the excavation of an early nineteenth-century cabin that was the home of Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife Lucy Mack, parents of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church. They are excavating the foundation of a double log cabin at the Joseph Smith Historic Site in western Illinois, and have uncovered a structural support for the house, a small house key, marbles, window glass, metal, and buttons. They’ve also uncovered prehistoric pieces of pottery and weapons. “People come here to pilgrimage to the Joseph Smith burial site and home site. Mormons in particular come for about five years of Mormon history, 1839-1844. For us to come looking for five years of history and find 10,000 years is really gratifying,” said descendant Bob Smith. 

Tiwanaku Tombs Discovered in Peru

  AREQUIPA, PERU—Peru This Week reports that a team of archaeologists from Poland’s University of Wroclaw and Peru’s Universidad Católica de Santa Maria discovered tombs from the Tiwanaku culture near the coastline in Peru’s Tambo Valley. Looters had been to the site, but the scientists were able to recover human remains and artifacts. The tombs had been constructed between 600 and 800 A.D. The researchers do not expect to find a Tiwanaku settlement in the area.   

Genetic Study Suggests Chimps & Humans Split Earlier Than Thought

  OXFORD, ENGLAND—A new study of the rate of gene mutations in three generations of western chimpanzees agrees with recent findings that the human mutation rate is half as fast as had been previously thought. This new understanding pushes back the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimps to at least 12 million years ago. “Our results add substance to the idea that the human-chimpanzee split was considerably older than has been recently thought,” geneticist Gil McVean of the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics told Live Science.   

Scholars Look Outside the James Fort Palisade

JAMES CITY, VIRGINIA—This summer’s excavations at Jamestown will focus on the search for stains that may have been left by outlying palisades, the bases of temporary soldiers’ tents, structures, wells, and cultivated fields. “We’re getting a pretty good idea that this triangular fort—which is only about an acre—was the heart of a much bigger place. It was the stronghold—the keep of the castle,” Jamestown Rediscovery director William M. Kelso told The Daily Press. Captain John Smith wrote that acres of land had been planted after the settlers’ arrival in 1607, and tall grasses were cleared to improve visibility and security, but much of the seventeenth-century site was probably destroyed during the construction of Civil War earthworks. And yet, last summer, Kelso’s team found traces of a furrowed field outside the original triangle of the fort. “An encampment doesn’t necessarily leave you with a lot of evidence that can be found—but we’ve really just started looking,” added archaeologist Danny Schmidt.

Monday, June 16

Tracking Australia’s Earliest Settlers

  PILBARA, WESTERN AUSTRALIA—Stone artifacts, animal bones and charcoal at the Ganga Maya Cave suggest that the site was used by humans more than 45,000 years ago, and may have been visited repeatedly up until 1,700 years ago. Is this Australia’s earliest habitation site? “We have some old the dates and I would prefer to get other dates before I make those kind of claims. It is certainly a very old site,” archaeologist Kate Morse from Big Island Research told The Sydney Morning Herald. “I think it is an area that people have traveled into to start exploring Australia. They have come from Southeast Asia across the water and arrived in northern Australia and opportunistically made their way around the coast and inland following river systems inland,” she added.   

Plague Victims’ Remains Found in Thebes

  LUXOR, EGYPT—Live Science reports that the remains of third-century plague victims have been unearthed in Thebes at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru, which was built in the seventh century B.C., by members of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL). Many of the bodies had been burned in a giant bonfire and covered with a thick layer of lime. Three kilns were found nearby where the lime was produced. Known as the “Plague of Cyprian,” the series of epidemics, thought to be some form of smallpox or measles, is credited with weakening the Roman Empire and hastening its fall, according to Francesco Tiradritti, director of MAIL. “We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime. They had to dispose of them without losing any time,” he said.   

Abolitionists’ Cabin From “Bleeding Kansas” Era Excavated

OSAWATOMIE, KANSAS—The foundation of Adair Cabin, home to abolitionists Samuel and Florella Adair, half-sister of John Brown, is being excavated in eastern Kansas. The cabin was built in 1854, the year that Kansas was opened as a territory. John Brown and his sons occasionally stayed with the Adairs and helped them to build additions to the log structure. So far the team has learned that what had been thought to be the cabin’s front door was actually its back door. They also found a trap door in what would have been the kitchen. The recovered artifacts include a silver fork, a double-edged ax, hand-forged nails, animal bones, bullets, rifle cartridges, and pieces of dishes. “John Brown got all the attention. He was out there and dramatic. But the Adair family does not get enough credit for having the tenacity to stay out here when neighbors on either side of a divisive issue are killing one another,” crew chief Melanie Maden told The Wichita Eagle

Nineteenth-Century Tonics Recreated in New York

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Alyssa Loorya and her team at Chrysalis Archaeology have recreated two nineteenth-century tonics whose bottles were unearthed at a site that was once a German beer garden on the Lower East Side. One small, green bottle carried the bright orange “Elixir of Long Life,” and two others contained “Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters.” “We wanted to know what this stuff actually tasted like,” Loorya told DNA Info New York. The recipe for the Elixir of Long Life was found in Germany in a nineteenth-century medical guide, and it contains aloe, gentian root, and alcohol. The stomach bitters brew recipe includes Peruvian cinchona, cinnamon, and cardamom seeds. “These types of cure-alls were pretty ubiquitous in the nineteenth century, and always available at bars. Similar bitters and ingredients are still used today, in cocktails, and in health stores, but I guess we don’t know if it was the copious amounts of alcohol or the herbs that perhaps made people feel better,” she said.