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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 09

France Repatriates Artifacts to Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that French officials handed over a limestone relief recovered from a Paris auction house during a ceremony at Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters. Shaaban Abdel-Gawad of the ministry’s Antiquities Repatriation Department said that the sculpture, which dates to the 30th Dynasty and depicts the goddess Sekhmet carrying a sun disk on her head, is thought to have been taken from a temple at the Saqqara necropolis sometime in the twentieth century. Hieroglyphs on the relief include the cartouche of King Nekhtenbo II. A collection of more than 40 artifacts seized at Charles de Gaulle Airport was also returned. Most of those objects date to the Coptic era, and include jewelry and cosmetic containers. For more on archaeology in Egypt, go to “World’s Oldest Dress.”

4,000-Year-Old Paintings Revealed on Egyptian Tomb Walls

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that 4,000-year-old tombs excavated more than 100 years ago in the Beni Hassan cemetery have been cleaned and conserved by a team from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. A team led by Linda Evans of Macquarie University’s Australian Centre for Egyptology then surveyed the tombs using modern techniques. The effort has revealed scenes on the walls that were not recorded during the initial investigation, and clarified other images, including one of an Egyptian mongoose wearing a collar and walking on a leash on the wall of a tomb occupied by Baqet I, a governor during the 11th Dynasty. Evans noted that the person walking the mongoose also holds the leash of a spotted hunting dog. Although mongooses were not fully domesticated, Evans suggests they may have been kept as pets to control pests such as snakes, rats, and mice. Or, they may have been employed by hunters to flush birds from cover. For more, go to “Recovering Hidden Texts.”

Additional Homo naledi Fossils Found

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The Guardian reports that the fossils of additional Homo naledi individuals have been found in the Rising Star Cave system, in a chamber some 300 feet away from the site were the first specimens were discovered in 2013. That brings the total number to at least 18 individuals, including the nearly complete skull of an adult. Homo naledi stood nearly five feet tall, weighed about 100 pounds, and had a small brain and curved fingers, but wrists, hands, legs, and feet resembling those of Neanderthals and modern humans. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand said that the bones show few signs of stress or disease, which suggests Homo naledi may have been the dominant species in the area between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago—a time when Homo sapiens also lived in the region. Berger thinks stone tools attributed to modern humans may have been made by Homo naledi, although no tools have been found with the hominin fossils. He also speculates that they were able to control fire, since they were able to navigate the underground cave. “I think the discovery of this second chamber adds to the idea that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in the deep underground chambers of the Rising Star cave system,” he said. For more on Homo naledi, go to “A New Human Relative.”

Monday, May 08

Airborne Laser Scans Detect Ancient Structures in Poland

WARSAW, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that a team of researchers from Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University used airborne laser scanning to find ancient barrows, mounds, fields divided by raised earthen strips, tar extraction facilities, and charcoal piles in the Bialowieza Forest. Once the sites were spotted with from the air, the archaeologists visited the sites to try to determine their age and function. Some of the sites were also examined with GPR georadar. “Because of the strict regulations concerning the protection of the natural heritage in the Bialowieza National Park and the adjoining reserves, we cannot conduct excavations there,” said Joanna Wawrzeniuk. One cluster of 25 barrows, located in the northern section of Bialowieza National Park, is thought to have been made by the Iron Age Wielbark culture. The team also discovered a fortified settlement near the Orlówka River. This circular fortification measured about 100 feet in diameter and was surrounded by marshes. It may have served as a watch outpost during the Middle Ages. For more on the use of airborne laser scanning, go to “Angkor Urban Sprawl.”

Brains of Two-Sided Stone-Tool Makers Scanned

NORFOLK, ENGLAND—The Yorkshire Post reports that Shelby Putt of the Stone Age Institute and her team scanned the brains of volunteers with functional near-infrared spectroscopy while they produced two-sided stone weapons, such as hand axes and cleavers. It had been thought that such stone tool production, first undertaken some 1.75 million years ago, would be linked to the evolution of language. But the scientists instead found that the same areas of the brain were activated in the tool makers as in those who play the piano in a rock-and-roll style. Both skills require a combination of visual memory, hearing, movement awareness, and action planning. “We think this marked a turning point in the evolution of the human brain, leading to the evolution of a new species of human,” Putt said. For more, go to “Earliest Stone Tools.

Nineteenth-Century Urban Trash Uncovered in Iowa

DAVENPORT, IOWA—According to a report in The Globe Gazette, John Hedden of the University of Iowa and his team uncovered a small section of what may be a city trash pit dating to the early nineteenth century. They recovered more than 30,000 artifacts, all from working-class homes, including a chamber pot, animal bones, broken china, shoe soles, pipes, medicine and liquor bottles, and an ink well. “You never see this dense (amount of material in) an early deposit,” Hedden said. “We were just astounded as we dug into it.” Hedden explained that in the early nineteenth century, the site, located along Western Avenue, was a swampy area that was unsuitable for development, and so was probably used as a local dumping ground. He added that sanitary conditions in the neighborhood were so poor that in 1839 a ditch was constructed in the middle of Harrison Street to carry waste to the river. Davenport officials eventually passed an ordinance that made it illegal to throw manure, spoiled meat, animals and their entrails, and decayed vegetables into public spaces, streets, or alleys. To read about another discovery in the Midwest, go to “Baby Bobcat.”

Friday, May 05

Project Aims to Catalog Prehistoric Hand Paintings

A team of archaeologists is attempting to catalog all of the prehistoric hand paintings in European caves, according to a report in Seeker. The team, led by Hipolito Collado, head of archaeology for the government of Extremadura, Spain, is taking scans and high-resolution photos of the hand paintings and then posting them in a 3-D format in an online database where researchers around the world can access them. “It’s about making inaccessible art accessible,” said Collado. Among the questions he hopes to answer are: Why did early people paint hands in caves? Were they trying to mark territory? Do the paintings have anything to say about the role of Paleolithic women? Why are fingers missing from the hands in some of the paintings? According to Collado, painted hands have been found in 36 caves in Europe—all in France, Spain, and Italy. To read more about hand stencils found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, go to “The First Artists.”

Chinese Mural Tomb Unearthed

XINZHOU, CHINA—Live Science reports that a team from the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology has excavated a large tomb dating to ca. A.D. 600. A long corridor in the tomb was decorated with an unusual array of murals, including depictions of fantastical creatures, such as a winged horse carrying a tiger in its mouth, a blue monster-like figure that appears to be leaping or falling, and a nearly naked god known as the Master of the Wind running in the direction of the burial chamber. In additional to fantastical themes, the murals depict scenes from everyday life, such as horse trading and hunting. Though the tomb had been looted recently, the murals were undamaged. To read more about how Chinese archaeologists are dealing with looting, go to “Tomb Raider Chronicles.” 

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