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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, August 09

Four Medieval Skeletons Found in Ireland

KILKENNY, IRELAND—Four well-preserved skeletons dating to the medieval period were found just 14 inches below the surface in the graveyard at St. Mary’s Church. The site is the home of the Medieval Mile Museum, in an area designated for a service trench. The skeletons are thought to represent a woman around the age of 25; a woman in her teens or early 20s, who had a damaged spine and one leg that was shorter than the other; and two children around eight years old, one of whom probably had a severe iron deficiency. “The four skeletons can be dated to circa A.D. 1250-1350 based on pottery found in their graves, meaning they are of the first few generations of Anglo-Norman colonists in Kilkenny,” Cóilín Ó Drisceoil of Kilkenny Archaeology said in a UTV Ireland report. He explained that the location of the burials and the lack of coffins suggests that they were poor people. The excavators found green stains on the bones that may have been left by copper-alloy shroud pins. The remains will be removed for further study, but may eventually be returned to St. Mary’s for burial. To read about another skeleton found in Ireland, go to "Irish Roots." 

Ambling Horses May Have Originated in Medieval England

BERLIN, GERMANY—Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research led an international team of researchers in a genetic study of gaited horses. All horses can walk, trot, canter, and gallop, but certain breeds of horse have a mutation on a single gene that produces a smooth, four-beat gait known as the amble. The team analyzed DNA samples from 90 horses that lived between 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. They found the mutation in samples from two horses whose remains, unearthed in England, date to between A.D. 850 and 900, and in ten out of 13 samples from horse remains unearthed in Iceland. These horses lived between the ninth and eleventh centuries. None of the samples from mainland Europe carried the mutation that produces the amble. “As far as we know today, ambling horses originated in early medieval England and spread around Eurasia within a few centuries,” Ludwig told The Guardian. He suggests that the Vikings may have transported their comfortable mounts from England to Iceland, where they were bred for the trait. For more, go to "The Story of the Horse."

Shifting Sands Reveal Petroglyphs on a Hawaiian Beach

HONOLULU, HAWAII—A series of at least 17 petroglyphs estimated to be 400 years old was revealed by shifting sands on the Waianae coast of Oahu. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the U.S. Army have been working to record and protect the images, which are etched into the sandstone. “We can now come up with a plan to further protect and preserve this site,” Army archaeologist Alton Exzabe told the Honolulu Star Advertiser. He explained that one of the glyphs—a human figure—measures between four and five feet from head to toe and has distinct hands and fingers. He explained that many petroglyphs in Hawaii are about one foot tall. “They are an important part of Hawaii’s culture and while sands have covered them again, in time they will reappear and we want to make sure people know that they are fragile and culturally sensitive and should only be viewed; not touched,” added Alan Downer, administrator for the DLNR State Historic Preservation Division. For more, go to "Letter from Hawaii: Inside Kauai's Past."

Gold Curse Tablets Unearthed in Serbia

BELGRADE, SERBIA—Engraved pieces of gold and silver foil have been found rolled up inside two lead amulets in fourth-century graves at the Roman site of Viminacium in eastern Serbia, according to a Reuters report. The texts on the small pieces of foil are thought to be magic spells intended to invoke divine powers of good and evil. “The alphabet is Greek, that much we know. The language is Aramaic—it’s a Middle Eastern mystery to us,” said Viminacium’s chief archaeologist, Miomir Korac. Archaeologist Ilija Dankovic added that the names of demons connected to an area of what is now Syria have been read on the tiny scrolls, which resemble Roman lead curse tablets. Viminacium, home to some 40,000 inhabitants, was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Archaeologists are excavating the graves before the expansion of a nearby power station. For more on curse tablets, go to "Cursing the Competition."

Monday, August 08

Butchered Animal Residues Found on 250,000-Year-Old Tools

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA—A team led by April Nowell of the University of Victoria has tested 7,000 hand axes, scrapers, flakes, and projectile points unearthed in Azraq, Jordan, with a forensic technique called cross-over immunoelectrophoresis, and detected protein residue on 17 of the 250,000-year-old tools. The residues have been identified as rhinoceros, horse, wild cattle, and duck. Bones of some, but not all, of these animals have been found at the excavation site. “The implication of all of this is these early hominins were engaging in a wide variety of techniques in order to exploit these kind of animals,” Nowell said in a Metro News Canada report. “It might seem obvious to say, but the way you take down a rhino is different than the way you take down a duck.” Nowell explained that the variety of animals that were hunted by hominins suggests that they were able to adapt to their challenging environment with complex survival strategies. To read about another discovery in Jordan, go to "Fact-Checking Lawrence of Arabia."

Maya Site Yields “Snake Dynasty” Hieroglyphic Panels

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA—Two hieroglyphic panels thought to have been part of a ceremonial staircase at the Maya site of Caracol in Belize have been found near a newly discovered tomb in Xunantunich, about 26 miles away. As a whole, the engravings on the Caracol staircase told the story of snake-dynasty ruler Lord K’an II, who defeated the city of Naranjo and killed its ruler after a ceremonial ball game. But in A.D. 680 the ruler of Naranjo defeated Caracol and the snake dynasty, dismantled the panels, and partially reassembled them in Naranjo. Fragments of panels have been found in Caracol and elsewhere, but the panels in Xunantunich are thought to tell the origins of the snake dynasty, the move of the capital, the death of K’an’s mother, and identify a previously unknown ruler of Calakmul. Epigrapher Christophe Helmke of the University of Copenhagen explained in the International Business Times that the panels clarify a “tumultuous phase of the snake-head dynasty.” Jaime Awe of Northern Arizona University and the Belize Institute of Archaeology added that it isn’t clear how the panels arrived at Xunantunich, but the city may have been allied with or a vassal state to Naranjo. For more on archaeology in Belize, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

19th-Century Plunge Pool Discovered at 12th-Century Abbey

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Restoration work at the twelfth-century Abbey of St. Mary de la Pré, also known as Delapre Abbey, has uncovered a pool that may have been used by Victorian-era bathers. “At first we were confused about what it was because of the shape and size of it, but then we had a eureka moment,” archaeological building specialist Joe Prentice told Culture 24. He explained that by the nineteenth century, the abbey would have had plumbing, making such a pool possible. “Also in the late 1800s—perhaps the 1880s or 1890s—into the period just pre-war, there was a bit of a fad for healthy living, and a belief in the healing effect of plunging into cold water,” he added. The building served as a War Office during World War II, and a record office until recently. It will open to the public later this year. For more, go to "Letter from England: The Scientist's Garden."

Montenegro Palace May Have Been Home to Illyrian Kings

RISAN, MONTENEGRO—According to Science & Scholarship in Poland, Piotr Dyczek of the University of Warsaw’s Antiquity of Southeastern Europe Research Center has found monumental buildings dating to the third century B.C. in Rhizon, the ancient capital of Illyria. “The location of buildings, their scale, plan, and used building techniques are completely unusual and unique, when compared with the previously known examples of Illyrian architecture, including the structures already discovered in Risan,” Dyczek said. He thinks the structures represent a palace complex used by at least two different rulers—perhaps King Ballaios and Queen Teuta. The first palace at the site had a large room with a central fireplace flanked by marble columns. In the foundation of the hearth, the excavators found a cache of 30 coins. Luxurious Hellenistic table ware was also recovered. A paved square and a section of road were found in front of the building. This palace had been burned down, and sling projectiles were found in the ruins. The second palace had been built over these ruins with limestone floors, decorative blocks, and wide entrances that would have had wooden doors. The team also recovered fragments of two large door knockers. For more, go to "Palace of Mithradates - Kuban, Russia."

Friday, August 05

Archaeologists May Be Close to The Alamo’s Main Gate

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—Archaeologists have uncovered stones that may have been part of a wall near the main gate of the Alamo compound during the mission era, in the 1700s. “We’ve got stone that has been placed in what appears to be a trench that would have been excavated,” lead investigator Nesta Anderson told San Antonio Express-News. Archaeologist Steve Tomka adds a palisade wall was probably put around the gate for added protection by the time of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. For more on archaeology in Texas, go to "Off the Grid: Caddo Mounds State Historic Site."

Scholars Revisit Cahokia’s Beaded Burial

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—A team of researchers examined the maps, notes, and reports associated with the excavation of Cahokia’s Mound 72 by Melvin Fowler in 1967. They also conducted independent skeletal analysis of the remains Fowler unearthed from the so-called beaded burial, which he thought contained the remains of two high-status males surrounded by the bodies of additional warriors and 20,000 marine-shell disc beads. “Fowler’s and others’ interpretation of these mounds became the model in terms of understanding status and gender roles and symbolism among Native American groups,” Thomas Emerson of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey told International Business Times. The new skeletal analysis, however, suggests that the beaded burial’s two central bodies belonged to a man and a woman, who were surrounded by the remains of other male-female pairs along with disarticulated, bundled bones that had been buried near the important couples. “Now we realize we don’t have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts,” Emerson said. He explained that this interpretation of the beaded burial is more in line with what is known about the fertility and agricultural symbolism found in the rest of the ancient city. For more on Cahokia, go to "Mississippian Burning."

New Thoughts on China’s Great Flood

BEIJING, CHINA—Geologists have found evidence of a natural disaster that might be linked to the legendary founding of Chinese civilization. According to Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University, tradition holds that Emperor Yu tamed the Yellow River after a great flood, thus earning a divine mandate to establish the first dynasty. BBC News reports that Wu and his colleagues discovered sediments from a landslide that dammed the Yellow River across the Jishi Gorge. That dam burst a few months later and unleashed a catastrophic flood, so the scientists looked for evidence of it in the lowlands downstream. “I suddenly realized that the so-called black sand previously revealed by archaeologists at the Lajia site could be, in fact, the deposits from our outburst flood,” Wu said. The researchers also realized that the earthquake that destroyed the village at Lajia may have caused the landslide that dammed the river. Carbon dating of the 65-foot thick flood deposits and the bones of Lajia’s earthquake victims suggests that the flood occurred around 1920 B.C. To read about another point when an earthquake may have affected Chinese history, go to "Seismic Shift."

Smiling May Be Older Than Previously Thought

KYOTO, JAPAN—Baby Japanese macaques smile during their REM sleep, similar to human infants and baby chimpanzees, according to a study led by Fumito Kawakami of Kyoto University. Kawakami’s research team recorded how often seven napping macaques between four and 21 days old lifted one or both corners of their mouths when they fell asleep during their medical examinations. “Spontaneous macaque smiles are more like short, lopsided spasms compared to those of human infants,” Kawakami explained in a Daily Mail report. The presence of spontaneous smiles in macaques, a distant human relative, suggests that the origin of smiling dates back at least 30 million years, before the ancestors of modern humans and old world monkeys diverged. Kawakami thinks that the spontaneous smiles most likely do not express pleasure, but may help develop facial muscles used in later developmental stages for social smiling in humans and grimaces in other primates. For more, go to "Scientists Unearth Macaque 'Tools' in Thailand."