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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, August 15

Anglo-Saxon Cemetery on Lindisfarne Excavated

DURHAM, ENGLAND—Two complete skeletons have been discovered in what is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, according to a report from Chronicle Live. The cemetery is believed to have been linked to the island’s monastery, and those buried in it may have included those who worked the monastery’s land or pilgrims who traveled to the island. Another dig on the island recently discovered an early church. “They found the church and we have found the congregation,” said Durham University archaeologist David Petts, who led the cemetery excavation. The two complete skeletons will be analyzed for insights into the individuals’ diet, health, and geographic origins. The discovery of seal bones along with the remains of other animals offers an initial clue into what the people on the island were eating. “They are hunting seals and making the most of the resources available to them,” said Petts. A charnel pit containing bones that may have been gathered together after being turned up by plowing was also discovered. To read in-depth about Anglo-Saxon England, go to “Letter From England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Ptolemaic-Era Tombs Uncovered in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Three rock-cut tombs from the Ptolemaic era have been discovered near the town of Samelut in Upper Egypt, according to a report from Ahram Online. The tombs, which were discovered by an Egyptian archaeological mission, contain a number of sarcophagi of varied shapes and sizes in addition to a range of clay fragments. Studies of these fragments suggest they are from the 27th Dynasty and the Greco-Roman era. “This fact suggests that the area was a large cemetery over a long period of time,” said Ayman Ashmawy, head of the Ministry of Antiquities’ Ancient Egyptian Sector. Previous excavations in the area uncovered around 20 tombs built in the catacomb style typical of the period, but the newly discovered tombs have a different architectural design. The two tombs for which excavation has been completed each featured a perpendicular burial shaft—the first leading to a single burial chamber with four sarcophagi and nine burial holes, and the second leading to two burial chambers, one of which contains the remains of two sarcophagi and six burial holes, including one designed for a small child. The bones found in the tombs belonged to men, women, and children, suggesting the tombs were part of a large cemetery that served a large city. For more, go to “Afterlife on the Nile.”

Initiation Rites and Rock Art in Namibia

WINDHOEK, NAMIBIA—A recent survey of rock art in the Namib Desert is yielding new insights into the cultures of ancient hunter-gatherers, reports the International Business Times. Among the most intriguing rock art panels recorded by the survey is one that depicts a female antelope, or kudu. Dating to perhaps 3,000 years ago, it probably played a role in female initiation rituals, says Quaternary Research Services archaeologist John Kinahan. Such rituals took place in isolated locations in ritual seclusion shelters, which the rock art panel also appears to depict. Nearby, Kinahan identified a stone circle that is likely the remains of one of the shelters. “It is possible that the sociable characteristics of the female kudu were given as example to follow to young girls who prepared to become women,” says Kinahan. “Kudus are docile and sociable, they look after the youngsters all together and collaborate without the males. These characteristics were probably seen as desirable for women to have.” To read more about archaeological discoveries in southern Africa, go to “The First Use of Poison.”

Early Islamic House Unearthed in Jordan

JERASH, JORDAN—Live Science reports that archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an extravagant early Islamic period house in the city of Jerash. The building seems to have been destroyed on January 18, 749, when an earthquake struck the city. The team did not find any objects related to daily life, but they did find troughs filled with thousands of the stone cubes known as tesserae that are used to create mosaics. That suggests that the house was possibly undergoing a remodel at the time of the earthquake. The discovery also allows a rare glimpse into the process of mosaic creation. “What our findings now indicate is that these tesserae were most likely produced on location,” says Aarhus University archaeologist Rubina Raja, the project's co-leader. “You would have the craftsmen or craftswomen who actually carved these tesserae on-site to be used later.” The team also found the skeleton of a young person who appears to have died in the house when the earthquake struck. To read more about early Islamic archaeology, go to “Expanding the Story.”

Monday, August 14

Silver Coins Signal Rome's Rise

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—The International Business Times reports that a new geochemical study shows that shortly after the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War, they began to mint their coins in silver mined on the Iberian Peninsula, which Carthage had controlled up to that point. A team led by Katrin Westner of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, tested the silver content of 70 Roman coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C. They found that before the second Punic War, Roman coins were made from silver mined in the Aegean. But after Carthage's defeat around 209 B.C., the Romans began to use silver mined in what is now Spain. “This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day," says Westner. "We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome." To read more about how Rome evolved into a superpower, go to “Rome’s Imperial Port.”

106-Year-Old “Edible” Fruitcake Found in Antarctica

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—A fruitcake that predates the outbreak of World War I has been discovered in Antarctica, according to a report from BBC News. The 106-year-old delicacy was found by a team from the New Zealand–based Antarctic Heritage Trust on Cape Adare. It is thought to have belonged to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The tin holding the cake was somewhat rusty, but the cake itself was found to be in good condition—and even smelled edible. The cake was uncovered in Antarctica’s oldest building, a hut built in 1899 by a team led by Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink and used by Scott during his 1911 Terra Nova expedition. Scott was known to have been fond of the fruitcake, which was made by the biscuit company Huntley and Palmers. Conservators have uncovered some 1,500 items in the hut, including well-preserved jams and poorly preserved meat and fish. Although Scott and his team reached the South Pole, a Norwegian team got there just over a month ahead of them, and Scott and four of his team members died on their return to the base. For more, go to “The Third Reich’s Arctic Outpost.”

Circular Wall Unearthed in Peru

CUSCO, PERU—Andina reports that Peruvian archaeologists digging a site in the surburbs of Cusco have unearthed a circular wall that was erected some 3,000 years ago. Built by an ancient people known as the Marcavalle culture, the structure measures 22 feet in diameter and was probably a dwelling that might have also had a ceremonial function. Inside, the team discovered pottery featuring human and animal faces, as well as figurines and dog and other animal bones. A second walled structure, likely a workshop, was also unearthed. To read in-depth about archaeology in Peru, go to “An Overlooked Inca Wonder.”

Friday, August 11

Archaeologists Confirm Viking Fortress

AARHUS, DENMARK—Archaeologists in Denmark have used advanced remote-sensing technology to confirm the existence of a tenth-century Viking ring fortress, reports the International Business Times. While the site had been tentatively identified since the 1970s as a fortress of the Trelleborg type (characterized by a telltale circular shape and precise internal structure), only recently has technology such as LiDAR been available that allows researchers to measure subtle differences in the ground of long-overgrown earthworks. There have only been five confirmed Trelleborg fortresses discovered in Denmark to date and, at 500 feet in diameter, the Borgring fortress is the first of its kind to be found in 60 years. The Trelleborg fortresses appear to have been built between 975 and 980 during the reign of King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who may have sought to centralize a previously factional alliance of Viking leaders in the face of threats from the Holy Roman Empire. To read more about Harald Bluetooth, go to “Bluetooth's Fortress.”

Excavations Uncover Zanzibar's Colonial History

ZANZIBAR TOWN, ZANZIBAR—According to a report in United Arab Emirates-based The National, a team of researchers led by archaeologist Mark Horton from the University of Bristol has uncovered the foundations of two early-17th-century Portuguese churches on the island of Zanzibar, which lies off the coast of Tanzania. Horton and his colleagues, including archaeologists from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, made the discovery while excavating an 18th-century Arab fort in Stone Town, the oldest quarter of the island's main city, Zanzibar Town. In typical fashion for settlements that have weathered multiple periods of rule by successive colonial powers, the dig at Stone Town has revealed layers of occupation, including that of the Portuguese, who effectively controlled the East African coast between 1500 and 1698, when they ceded Fort Jesus in Mombasa to Omani Arabs. In addition to the church foundations, the team has also found several Christian burials, including that of a woman—possibly a nun—with a sacred heart medallion around her neck. According to Horton, while historians have long held that Stone Town is only a few centuries old, the team has identified archaeological deposits that could extend back a thousand years. To read more about archaeology in East Africa, go to "Stone Towns of the Swahili Coast." 

Medieval Parchment DNA and Proteins Studied

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Research on the proteins and DNA held in medieval parchment manuscripts is providing new insights into how the manuscripts were made and used, according to a report from New Scientist. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University of York, and Trinity College Dublin studied manuscripts including the York Gospels, which were written around A.D. 1000. Since conventional methods of extracting DNA from the manuscripts were deemed too invasive, the researchers used rubbings from the parchment that are removed as part of routine cleaning and typically discarded. The proteins found in the rubbings indicated that the York Gospels were primarily made from cattle, while some pages were made from sheepskin. A Gospel of Luke dating to the twelfth century and owned by Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College was found to have been made with skins of calves, sheep, goat, and two different species of deer. DNA from the rubbings suggests that most of the animals used to make the parchment were female. In addition, pages of manuscripts containing clerical oaths that would have been touched or kissed regularly were found to contain higher levels of human DNA. “You can even see the use to which the text is being put,” said Matthew Collins of the University of Copenhagen, “which is kind of amazing.” For more on manuscripts, go to “Scroll Search.”

Iron Age Statue Unearthed in Turkey

TAYINAT, TURKEY—The International Business Times reports that archaeologists have unearthed a large fragment of an Iron Age statue in eastern Turkey. Discovered near the gate to the citadel of the Neo-Hittite capital of Kunulua, the statue depicts a woman with curls in her hair, and would have once stood between 13 and 16 feet high. The team, led by University of Toronto archaeologist Timothy Harrison, believes that the monument dates to the early ninth century B.C. and probably was erected to honor an important noblewoman. “The discovery of this statue raises the possibility that women played a more prominent role in the political and religious lives of these early Iron Age communities than the existing historical record might suggest,” says Harrison. The team's recovery of smaller fragments of the statue might allow it to reconstruct the face, which could aid in the identification of the woman it depicts. To read more about artifacts from this period, go to “Artifact: Iron Age Figurines.”