Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, April 14

Britain’s Oldest Cremated Human Bone Discovered

ESSEX, ENGLAND—It had been thought that the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Britain’s Mesolithic period may have abandoned their dead, but a deposit containing cremated human bone was uncovered by a team from Oxford Archaeology in southeastern England. The bone probably represents at least one adult, whose remains were recovered with a large amount of charcoal, perhaps from a pyre that would have had to have reached a high temperature to achieve the complete combustion of the corpse. “We were expecting this cremation to date to the Bronze Age: we were so surprised when the first radiocarbon date came back as Mesolithic that we did two more to double check!” said Nick Gilmour, excavation leader. Sharp flint blades were found in the same pit, and although they were not finished tools, they could have been used for cutting. Three similar Mesolithic cremations are known in Ireland, and several have been found in continental Europe. For another find dating to this period, see "Beachcombing in the Mesolithic."

Was Richard III’s Scoliosis a Secret?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester thinks that Richard III may have kept his scoliosis hidden from public view, since no mention of it is known to have been made during his lifetime. “It is highly likely that Richard took care to control his public image. The body of the king was part of the propaganda of power, and even when it was revealed in order to be anointed as part of his coronation ceremony it was simultaneously concealed from the congregation,” she said in a press release. Lund suggests that tailoring kept his condition hidden from those outside the royal household until his corpse was stripped in front of witnesses after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Under the Tudor regime, the memory of Richard’s body became more misshapen, and included a withered arm and unequal limbs. “Stage history has reincarnated Richard as monster, villain and clown, but recent events have helped us to re-evaluate these physically defined depictions and strip back the cultural accretions that have surrounded his body,” she said. To read about the initial discovery of the monarch's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

Cut Marks on Neanderthal Bones Analyzed

MADRID, SPAIN—A new study of 57,600-year-old fossils from the Marillac site in France suggests that Neanderthals beat and fractured the bones of the recently deceased. The bones in the study, including leg and arm bones from two adults and a child, were found among the many bones of Neanderthals, animals, and tools at the site. The bones show cut marks made with flint tools while the bones were still fresh. No signs of carnivores’ teeth were found on these specimens, although signs of gnawing by animals have been found on other bones from the Marillac site. “To date we have been able to demonstrate these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe, which are of course much more recent, including groups of contemporary humans, but we have not been able to demonstrate the consumption of human meat by Neanderthals (although this has indeed been done in other much more modern populations),” María Dolores Garralda of Complutense University and the University of Bordeaux said in a Plataforma SINC press release. Why Neanderthals manipulated the bones in this way is uncertain. “There might have been rituals—still in the twenty-first century these continue in certain parts of the world—or for food—gastronomic cannibalism or due to need,” Garralda said. Many of the bones from the Marillac site still need to be analyzed. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Royal Chapel Discovered in Cairo’s Heliopolis Temple

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that carved basalt blocks and part of a statue carved with the cartouche of King Merineptah were found by a joint Egyptian-German team of archaeologists. The chapel belonged to King Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty, the last royal family to rule before Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. “Historical evidence suggests the pharaoh came to power by overthrowing Nepherites II, his predecessor and the last pharaoh of the 29th Dynasty,” archaeologist Sherif el-Sabban told The Cairo Post. The statue of Merineptah depicts the 19th-Dynasty pharaoh presenting an offering to a deity. The chapel was found within Heliopolis Temple, beneath modern Cairo. Ancient Heliopolis was one of the oldest cities in Egypt; most of its buildings were dismantled to build Cairo. Ground water has to be removed from the site for the excavation to continue. To read about animal mummies, which were popular in Egypt during this period, see "Messengers to the Gods."

Monday, April 13

Australian Students Search Possible Contact Site

 CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Students from Australian National University (ANU) are digging on Springbank Island in Lake Burley Griffin for evidence of Canberrra’s first European homestead and an Indigenous meeting place. The island was formed in 1963, when the lake was created and fill was dumped over the site. So far, they have recovered some nineteenth-century artifacts, and ground-penetrating radar suggests a possible foundation that could belong to the homestead. “I have been told by traditional custodians that this was a big meeting place for Indigenous people in the area. This is evident through archaeology with a good number of stone flakes and cores turning up in the sieve,” project leader Duncan Wright said in a press release. The team may even find evidence of contact between the Indigenous people and the Europeans. “Strangely in the [Australian Capital Territory] and surrounding regions it’s really hard to find any signs of that type of contact but we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. For more on Australian archaeology, see "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Roman Grave in England Yields Egyptian Glass

NORTH HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—A burial dating to A.D. 200 has been found in a field in southern England by a metal detectorist, who alerted the authorities after recovering three Roman jugs and a bronze dish. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, North Hertfordshire District Council’s Archaeology and Outreach Officer, announced that glass bottles, an iron lamp, a wall mounting bracket, two layers of hobnails from a pair of shoes, and a box with bronze corner bindings were also found. The largest of the bottles was hexagonal in shape, and contained cremated bone and a worn bronze coin dating from A.D. 174 or 175. Next to it, the team uncovered a rare octagonal-shaped bottle. Two mosaic glass dishes, probably made in Alexandria, Egypt, were found on top of a decayed wooden box that had held two clear glass cups and a pair of blue glass handles. “After 1,800 years, finds like these still impress us with their workmanship. Working together with the metal detectorist, NHDC’s archaeologist and the Finds Liaison Officer were able to uncover the past and find out and understand so much more about the lives of people in Roman North Herts,” Fitzpatrick-Matthews said in a press release. To read more about this period, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."

Excavations Reveal Ottawa’s “Barrack Hill”

OTTAWA, CANADA—Recent excavations near some of the main buildings on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill have uncovered items and buildings left behind by the British Royal Engineers who lived there while building the Rideau Canal in 1827, under the direction of Lt. Col. John By. The area was called Bytown after him, and was designated the capital by Queen Victoria in 1858. The foundations of an early nineteenth-century powder magazine remain, in addition to a garbage pit associated with the officers’ quarters. An opium bottle, two Catholic religious medals, a pipe engraved with a beaver and another with a coureur de bois, a lice comb, a toothbrush, pottery and china imported from England, a Worcestershire sauce bottle, and a mustard jar were recovered, along with bottles from wine, beer and champagne, tumblers, glasses, and animal bones. “When you think of early Bytown, it’s often portrayed as a swamp, as a back country area, but it’s interesting to see the officers still enjoyed a gentlemanly life that was expected of them,” project archaeologist Nadine Kopp of the Paterson Group told The Star Phoenix. The officers' quarters became government offices in 1867, and burned down in 1874. To read more about historical archaeology, see "America's Chinatowns."

Mass Grave Detected at Nazi Concentration Camp

LOWER SAXONY, GERMANY—A mass grave has been detected at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp located in northern Germany. Dutch researchers, including archaeologist Ivar Schute, used testimonies from ex-inmates of the camp and found an area of disturbed ground in a field at the end of the camp’s former main road. Measurements and initial tests suggest that a mass grave rests at the site. “We have consulted the Jewish community of Lower Saxony and according to religious laws no digging is allowed. That’s why there’s a decision not to start a dig. In any case, the whole camp has been declared a cemetery,” Jens-Christian Wagneer, director of the Bergen-Belsen memorial, told International Business Times. Some 70,000 people, including Jewish diarist Anne Frank, her sister Margot, and Dutch Resistance activist Jan Verschure, died at the camp between 1941 and April 15, 1945, when it was liberated. British troops burned the camp to prevent the further spread of disease. To read more about excavations at sites dating to this period, see "The Archaeology of World War II."

Friday, April 10

Hyenas Credited With Creating “Bone Flutes”

ZDICE, CZECH REPUBLIC—Private researcher Cajus G. Diedrick has examined what had been thought of as bone flutes made and played by Neanderthals in southeastern Europe, and concluded that they are actually remains of cave bear cubs that have been scavenged by hyenas. Phys.org reports that he examined bones taken from 15 cave locations, including a large cave bear den in Germany’s Weisse Kuhle Cave, and found that puncture marks are only present in the bones of cubs, which would have been more elastic than adult bones, and would have been less likely to break under the pressure of a hyena’s jaws. The position of the holes on the 19 cub femurs tested were on the thinner side of the bone, and those holes often match up with damage on the opposite side of the bone, as if they had been crushed by scavengers’ upper and lower teeth. In addition, the holes are shaped like a hyena premolar. Diedrick found no sign of drill marks or stone tools marks on the margins of the holes, and he was not able to recreate them. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art, see "New Life for Lion Man."

Did Neanderthals Share Space With Carnivores?

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—A research team lead by scientists from the Institut de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES) and the Universitat Rovira I Virgili (URV) has been excavating the Cova de les Llenes, a cave where Neanderthals camped some 200,000 years ago. The project will help scientists understand the relationship between Neanderthals and large carnivores. The camps are found mainly at the entrance to the cave, along with evidence that they hunted wild sheep, deer, aurochs, rhinos, and megaloceros, an extinct giant deer. The excavation has also uncovered Neanderthal tools crafted from stones collected on the banks of the Flamisell River. The evidence suggests that carnivores such as hyenas, leopards, wolves, foxes, and badgers also used the cave, in addition to the cave bears that hibernated there. Large numbers of cave bear remains have been found at the bottom of the cave, along with scratches on the walls and hibernation nests. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals."

Rock Shelter in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon Vandalized

PRICE, UTAH—A rock shelter in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon has been vandalized. Members of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance discovered the damage last month and reported it to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen,” Jerry D. Spangler, director of the nonprofit archaeology organization, told Deseret News. Two wire cables had been buried in the floor of the shelter, and archaeological material within the shelter had been moved to build new walls, according to Ahmed Mohsen, manager of the BLM’s Price field office. Spangler thinks the damage to the site was fairly recent, and that it has damaged the context of the artifacts. “It’s sad that someone would chose to make this their own little playground,” he said. To read about a mystery dealing with ancient figurines from the region, see "Investigating a Decades-Old Disappearance." 

Mummy-Filled Tombs Discovered in Peru

TORONTO, CANADA—Live Science reports that seven tombs containing at least 171 mummies have been excavated at Tenahaha, located in Peru’s Cotahuasi Valley. Dozens of tombs filled with as many as 40 mummies each are tucked into the small hills that surround the 1,200-year-old ceremonial site. “The dead, likely numbering in the low thousands, towered over the living,” archaeologist Justin Jennings wrote in a chapter of the new book, Tenahaha and the Wari State. Soon after death, the knees of the bodies had been pulled up to shoulder level, and the arms folded along the chest. The remains were then bound with rope and wrapped in layers of textiles, and the bodies of the youngest were placed in jars. Some of the mummies were later intentionally broken up and scattered among the tombs. “In the Andes, death is a process, it’s not as if you bury someone and you’re done,” Jennings said. He thinks that Tenahaha may have been “neutral ground,” where people met, feasted, and buried their dead. “It’s a period of great change and one of the ways which humans around the world deal with that is through violence. What we are suggesting is that Tenahaha was placed in part to deal with those changes, to find a way outside of violence, to deal with periods of radical cultural change,” he explained. Jennings is a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, and is a member of the international team of scientists that conducted the investigations. To read about another ancient Andean culture, see "A Wari Matriarchy?"