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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, June 21

Rare Skull From Korea's Silla Kingdom Reconstructed

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA—Scientists have studied a rare skeleton from the Silla culture, which ruled over part of the Korean Peninsula from 57 B.C. to A.D. 935. “The skeletons are not preserved well in the soil of Korea,” bioanthropologist Dong Hoon Shin of Seoul National University College of Medicine told Live Science. The skeleton, of a woman in her late 30s, was found in a traditional coffin that had been buried near the historic capital of the Silla Kingdom, Gyeongju. Analysis of her mitochondrial DNA suggests that she belonged to a genetic lineage that is present in East Asia today. Carbon isotopes in her bones indicate that she ate a vegetarian diet. The reconstruction of her facial features and head shape from skull fragments suggests that the woman had an elongated skull. Physical anthropologist Eun Jin Woo of Seoul National University thinks that the skull grew that way naturally, since it does not display the shape changes usually seen when heads are deliberately deformed. “In this regard, we think her head should be considered as normal variation in the group,” Woo said. For more, go to "Mysterious Golden Sacrifice."

4,000-Year-Old Rock Art Discovered in Siberia

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that more than 20 pictographs estimated to be 4,000 years old have been found in a remote area of the eastern Transbaikal region. Scientists learned of the red and orange ocher paintings, discovered by hunters, about three years ago. Sergei Alkin of Novosibirsk University described one of the images as a circle with a cross inside it. He thinks it may represent a shaman with a drum. Other images feature points, which may have been used for counting, and lines. “As for the number of vertical lines above the horizontal line, it is quite possible that these show dugout canoes with people sitting in them,” he said. He adds that the members of the research team have not found any evidence of ritual activity at the site, but they think the artists may have lived nearby, on the estuary of the Largi River. For more, go to "Letter from Siberia: Fortress of Solitude."

Conservation of 17th-Century French Ship Completed

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS—The restoration of La Belle, a seventeenth-century French ship discovered in 1995, has been completed at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory. La Belle was one of four ships sent to explore and colonize the Gulf Coast area under the command of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle and 300 settlers missed the mouth of the Mississippi River, however, and La Belle ended up grounded during a storm in 1686 in Matagorda Bay, around 100 miles southwest of Houston, heavily laden with supplies. The Guardian reports that archaeologists recovered a wide range of artifacts, including cannons, long guns, swords, Jesuit rings, combs, clothing, glass bottles and beads, brass tins, casks, and pewter plates, along with the ship’s hull, which had been heavily damaged by burrowing worms. “The La Belle herself is just the largest artifact that came out of the excavation,” said archaeologist Peter Fix. He explained that the fragile timbers were removed from the Gulf, transported in tanks of water to the lab, and freeze dried so that the conservators could carefully remove the water. Then the timbers were cleaned with brushes and chisels. The remains of La Belle are now on display at the Texas State History Museum in Austin. For more on the archaeology of shipwrecks, go to "Is it Esmeralda?"

Scientists Measure the Great Pyramid of Giza

CAIRO, EGYPT—Engineer Glen Dash of the Glen Dash Research Foundation and Egyptologist Mark Lehner of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) took new measurements of the Great Pyramid of Giza to try to determine its original size and orientation. The 4,500-year-old pyramid, constructed for the pharaoh Khufu, is the largest of the three pyramids on the Giza Plateau, but most of its smooth limestone casing was removed and reused in antiquity. The scientists looked for surviving casing stones on the pyramid’s platform, and marks that suggest where the edges of the casing stones once rested. They found 84 points along the original edges and marked them on a grid system developed by AERA to map the Giza Plateau. Statistical analysis of the new measurements indicate the west side is longer than the east by between 0.25 and 5.6 inches to a 95% probability, with the best estimate of the error being 2.9 inches. “The base is not quite square,” Dash told Live Science. He suspects that the pyramid builders laid the structure out on a grid oriented on the cardinal directions, with just a slight degree of error. Additional research could reveal how the ancient Egyptians accomplished this feat. For more, go to "Egypt’s Immigrant Elite."

Monday, June 20

Genomes Suggest Two Groups of First Farmers in Middle East

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Population geneticists Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich of Harvard Medical School suggest that farming was developed by two different populations in the Middle East. They obtained genetic material, which is poorly preserved in hot climates, from the tiny ear bones of 44 people who lived in the Middle East between 3,500 and 14,000 years ago. Nature reports the researchers found that the Neolithic farmers who lived across the Zagros Mountains of western Iran were more closely related to hunter-gatherers in the region than they were to farmers in the southern Levant. “There has been a school of thought arguing that everything happens first in the southern Levant and everyone learns how to be farmers in from this initial dispersal,” said Roger Matthews of the University of Reading, who is also co-director of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project. “But the archaeological evidence shows very strong local traditions that are clearly not in communication with each other, persisting for centuries if not millennia.” These two groups of farmers may have eventually mixed while looking for tool-making materials in eastern Turkey. For more, go to "Europe's First Farmers."

Medicine Jar Fragments Found on Roanoke Island

MANTEO, NORTH CAROLINA—Two small fragments of pottery discovered near the shores of Roanoke Island could be linked to the colonization attempts sponsored by English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. Eric Deetz, an archaeologist with the First Colony Foundation, thinks the blue, white, and brown fragments were part of a jar that held ointment or medicine, and may have belonged to Thomas Harriot or another member of the lost colony. Harriot traveled to North Carolina in 1585, on the second of three trips sponsored by Raleigh, and he is known to have studied the local plants and animals. The pottery was found near the site where the remains of a barrel well—a well lined with barrels whose tops and bottoms have been removed—were uncovered in the 1980s. “That pottery had something to do with the Elizabethan presence on that island,” Deetz said in a report by The Virginian-Pilot. National Park Service cultural resource manager Jami Lanier adds that additional artifacts may be found in the area. The excavation of the site is a priority because of the danger of it eroding away. To read about another recent discovery in Virginia, go to "Ship Underground."

Possible Buddhist Monastery Uncovered in India

GUJARAT, INDIA—The Indian Express reports that structures resembling a Buddhist monastery have been unearthed in the ancient city of Vadnagar in western India. In the seventh century A.D., Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang wrote about ten Buddhist monasteries in India, including in the city of Vadnagar. “We have unearthed six or seven monastic cells but the entire planning can only be ascertained after extended excavation,” said archaeologist Madhulika Samanta of the Archaeological Survey of India. She thinks the entire complex was square-shaped and had an entrance and a verandah on its northern side. Traces of a water management system and metallurgical workshops were also found. More than 4,000 artifacts, including religious sculptures, pottery, and silver and copper coins, have been recovered. The earliest building phase of the complex could date back to the first century A.D. Modern structures built by locals on the site have prevented further research. For more, go to "Letter from India: Living Heritage at Risk."

Large Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Excavated

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A research team from Wessex Archaeology has excavated a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in the 1970s near the village of Collingbourne Ducis on England’s Salisbury Plain. The 1,600-year-old burials include four cremation graves and more than 80 inhumation graves placed on what had been a wooded hilltop. The team found traces of infections such as tuberculosis and leprosy among the bones. Some of the graves contained shield bosses, knives, and spearheads, and are thought to have belonged to warriors. “All of the burials seem to have an iron knife. We’re not too sure if it’s symbolic of reaching a particular grave, but some of the infant or small child burials have got them as well,” Neil Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology said in a Culture 24 report. Fitzpatrick added that most of the graves had grave goods, but individuals who had been buried in a crouched position tended to have been buried with only an iron knife. Many of the women had been buried with reused Roman beads or other jewelry. The team also found traces of funerary structures on both sides of the cemetery. To read about another recent discovery in the same area, go to "A Villa under the Garden."

Friday, June 17

Stone Fragment May Be Piece of Mycenaean Throne

ATHENS, GREECE—Archaeologist Christofilis Maggidis of Dickinson College claims that a piece of worked limestone unearthed at an archaeological site in southern Greece two years ago could be a fragment of the throne of the rulers of Mycenae. The stone in question was recovered from a streambed under the remains of a hilltop Mycenaean palace that collapsed during an earthquake around 1200 B.C. The Greek Ministry of Culture agrees with a study suggesting that the artifact was part of a stone basin. Maggidis says, however, that the porous stone, which has not been found anywhere else in the palace, could not have held liquids, and was shaped for sitting. A similar type of stone was used in the citadel’s defensive walls, and in beehive tombs. “In our opinion, this is one of the most emblematic and significant finds from the Mycenaean era,” he said at a press conference reported by the Associated Press. For more, go to "The Minoans of Crete."

Archaeologists Sign Petition in Support of Utah Monument

SAN JUAN COUNTY, UTAH—Utah Public Radio reports that the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribal nations have proposed a 1.9 million acre national monument to protect the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah, where the Basketmaker Culture was discovered. More than 700 archaeologists have signed a letter from Friends of Cedar Mesa to President Obama in support of the proposal. The letter also expresses concern about looting and vandalism at sensitive archaeological sites in the area. Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, says the San Juan County area is home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, rock art panels, and burials. “Archaeologists have been advocating for the protection of these cultural resources for 113 years now,” he said. For more on archaeology in this area, go to "Archaeology, Off-Road Vehicles, and the BLM."

Ancient Technique Produces Highly Fertile Soil

SUSSEX, ENGLAND—An international team of researchers led by James Fairhead of the University of Sussex found that an ancient West African method of improving poor soils could help today’s farmers boost crop production in the age of climate change. UPI reports that for a period of at least 700 years, West African farmers enriched rain forest soils with ash, bone, and kitchen waste to produce what the team calls “African Dark Earths.” They detected 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon in the samples of African Dark Earths collected in Ghana and Liberia than in untreated soil. “Mimicking this ancient method has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people living in some of the most poverty- and hunger-stricken regions in Africa,” Fairhead said. For more on archaeology in West Africa, go to "The Nok of Nigeria."