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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 23

Porcupine Unearths Oil Lamp in Central Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Anti-antiquities-theft inspectors spotted an oil lamp on top of a pile of dirt while on patrol at Horbat Siv, a Roman-Byzantine site in central Israel. It turned out that the lamp had been brought to the surface by a porcupine digging a burrow. Further investigation revealed that the “relentless digger” had uncovered other ancient objects as well. “It often happens that porcupines dig their burrows at the site of archaeological digs…he skillfully throws the dirt aside, and with it whatever archaeological findings are in his path,” Ira Horovitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft unit told The Jerusalem Post. “The IAA calls on all porcupines to avoid digging burrows at archaeological sites and warns that digging at an archaeological site without a license is a criminal offense,” he joked. For more, see "Critter Diggers."

Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries Restored

POMPEII, ITALY—Now that a two-year restoration project has been completed, the Villa of the Mysteries has reopened to visitors. The building’s paintings, which feature life-sized figures, are thought to depict the initiation rites of the cult of Dionysus. Wax that had been applied during an earlier restoration was removed, and the darkened images were brightened. “We know well that the world looks with great attention at everything that happens at Pompeii. Today, Italy is proud to say to the world that we have turned a page,” Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said in a press conference reported in The Telegraph. For an in-depth report on this work, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries." 

Paleolithic Hunters May Have Poisoned Their Weapons

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A new technique, developed by Valentina Borgia of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and forensic chemist Michelle Carlin of Northumbria University, can identify residues of poisons on archaeological artifacts. Borgia thinks that hunters used poisons as early as 30,000 years ago, and is looking for traces of them on samples from museum collections. Initial tests of 6,000-year-old Egyptian arrows suggest that the black residue on their tips is from a poisonous plant in the project’s database. “It made good sense for people to use poisons. On their own, Paleolithic weapons with stone arrowheads may not have been deadly enough to immobilize or kill a large animal such as a red deer. Poisons plants were plentiful and the prehistoric population knew the environment where they lived, they knew the edible plants and their potential as medicines and poisons. To fabricate a poison is easy and economic, and the risk is minimal. In addition, the making of poisons is often part of the tradition and the rituality of hunting,” Borgia said in a press release. For more, see "The First Use of Poison." 

Did a Volcanic Eruption Wipe Out the Last Neanderthals?

BOULDER, COLORADO—The last of the Neanderthals died out some 40,000 years ago, about the same time as the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy. Archaeologists have wondered if the volcanic cataclysm, which injected sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, played a role the extinction. A sophisticated climate model developed by Benjamin A. Black of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues simulates the environment after the eruption. “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well,” they wrote in an upcoming article in the journal Geology. The model shows that temperatures in Eastern Europe and Asia had the largest decreases after the eruption. The last Neanderthal populations and modern humans in Western Europe would have experienced a drop in temperature from two to four degrees Celsius. The team concludes that these changes were probably insufficient to trigger the demise of the Neanderthals. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Friday, March 20

Rescue Excavations Continue at Bulgaria’s Aquae Calidae

BURGAS, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that excavations at Aquae Calidae, an ancient spa resort, have uncovered a fragment of a Roman inscription dating to the first or second centuries A.D., and a second- or third-century A.D. statuette carved from marble. The city was later known as Therma, or Thermopolis, and archaeologists have uncovered seventh-century Byzantine coins, and scyphates, or cup-shaped coins, dating to the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries. Two lead seals, one of which dates to the end of the eleventh century; ceramic vessels; glass bracelets; Ottoman smoking pipes; and two silver Ottoman coins were also recovered. Some of the coins were discovered in a medieval building. To read about a spectacular recent discovery in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Complete Crossbow Found With China’s Terracotta Army

XI’AN, CHINA—The most complete crossbow to date to have been found with the terracotta army at Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum has been unearthed in pit number one. The arch of the weapon survives, along with a bow string thought to have been made from animal tendon, and a trigger mechanism made of bronze. This example is also complete with the two poorly understood wooden sticks that are usually found with the terracotta army’s crossbows. “When we dusted off the sticks, we found three holes equidistant from each other and concluded that they were probably used to hang up ropes that fastened the crossbows when they were not in use,” Shen Maosheng, head of the archaeological team, told ECNS News. This crossbow will also help researchers create a more precise model to determine its shooting range more accurately. 

Western Washington’s “Completely New” Projectile Points

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—A tool-making site estimated to be more than 10,000 years old has been found along Bear Creek in suburban Seattle. Thousands of stone flakes and bifaces, scrapers, and hammerstones were recovered, along with two projectile-point fragments that are concave-based, “something not seen at any time in the local projectile point sequence,” Robert Kopperl of SWCA Environmental Consultants told Western Digs. The artifacts were found under a layer of peat radiocarbon dated to about 10,000 years ago. Burned bits of willow, poplar, and pine dated to between 10,000 and 12,500 years ago were found in the layer with the artifacts. “It’s the oldest artifact assemblage from western Washington, and the excellent context in which we were able to do our excavations and sampling is now providing a picture, much clearer than ever before, of the environment these people were living in during the transition out of the Ice Age,” Kopperl explained. To read in-depth about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning." 

European Parasites Hint at Jerusalem’s Medieval Tourist Trade

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Evidence of six species of parasites were detected in fossilized feces taken from a 500-year-old latrine in Jerusalem’s Christian quarter. The latrine, located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, had a vaulted roof, stone walls, and two “entry chutes.” All of the samples had roundworm and whipworm, which may have been spread by fecal contamination of food and water through agricultural practices. Two of the parasites, Entamoeba dysentery and fish tapeworm, found in one of the samples, were common in northern Europe at the time, but were very rare among populations in the Middle East. Common northern European methods of preparation, including smoking and pickling, do not kill the fish tapeworm parasite. Arabic texts of the time indicate that fish was not commonly eaten in inland cities such as Jerusalem, but when it was consumed, it was cooked thoroughly, according to local culinary traditions, which would have killed parasites. Fragments of imported pottery were also recovered from the cesspit. “This research highlights how we can use preserved parasite eggs in ancient toilets to spot past migrations and the spread of ancient diseases. Jerusalem’s importance to Christians in medieval Europe made it a key destination for both pilgrimage and trade. We can see these travelers took unexpected guests along with them,” Piers Mitchell of Cambridge University said in a press release. To read about archaeoentomology, see "Insights From Insects."

Thursday, March 19

Celtic Bronze Bracelet Unearthed in Poland

SANOK, POLAND—A third-century B.C. bronze bracelet was discovered in southeastern Poland and handed over to archaeologist Piotr Kotowicz of the Historical Museum in Sanok. It appears that the bracelet may have been deliberately destroyed and the pieces buried near an ancient Celtic settlement. “Maybe the owner of the bracelet lived in the village, the traces of which have been recorded in the same place,” Kotowicz told Science and Scholarship in Poland. The Celts arrived in the area in the middle of the third century B.C. from the Carpathian Mountains to the south. To read more in-depth about this period in Northern Europe, see "Bog Bodies Rediscovered."

The People of the British Isles

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Researchers have developed a map of the United Kingdom based upon genetic variation in the late 1800s, when people were less likely than today to migrate far from the region of their birth. Donnelly and his team took samples from more than 2,000 Britons of European ancestry who lived in rural areas, and whose grandparents were all born in the same region. The team found 17 different groups based upon this DNA, and these groups matched the grandparents’ geographic locations. The team also analyzed the genomes of more than 6,000 people from continental Europe to trace their ancestors’ contributions to the Britons’ ancestry, such as the Anglo-Saxons, who moved from present-day Denmark and Germany into Britain after the departure of the Romans and interbred with the local residents. “The patterns we see are extraordinary. The genetic effects we’re looking at are the result of, probably, thousands of years of history,” Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, told Nature News. To read in-depth about Anglo-Saxons, see "The Kings of Kent."

Animal Fat Residue Detected on 500,000-Year-Old Tools

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Fat residue has been detected on flint tools unearthed near a 500,000-year-old elephant rib bearing clear cut marks at the Revadim site in southern Israel. “Nothing is for sure in archaeology. Based on the time, the culture, the behavior and the assemblage, we assume it was Homo erectus,” Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz. This is the first time that animal remains have been found on an Acheulian biface and a scraper, a discovery that was made possible by Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIR) spectra technology. It is not known if the animal had been hunted or scavenged, however. “Not all agree that prehistoric men ate elephants. Some think that prehistoric men who weren’t Homo sapiens sapiens had some sort of problem. They have difficulty accepting that they could hunt and eat elephants. I am confident they’re wrong,” Barkai said. To read more, see "Homo erectus Stands Alone."

Photos of Pompeii, Then and Now

LONDON, ENGLAND—Zena Kamash of Royal Holloway, University of London, examined nineteenth- and early twentieth-century lantern slides of Pompeii taken by tourists, and compared them to modern-day photographs posted by travelers on the Internet. She found that the images are remarkably similar—they contain few people, despite the crowds that are drawn to the ancient city, even in the age of the selfie. “I think we have a very powerful imagined idea of what an ancient city should be like, which is a romantic empty ruin that stands in mute testament to the past. This is the view that has come down to us from the earliest drawings of archaeological sites and through the quiet, empty photos that we find in the lantern slide collection,” Kamash said in a press release. “In the case of Pompeii, I think this is particularly strong because we all know the tragic story of its destruction and devastation by Vesuvius erupting in A.D. 79—the silent plaster casts of the bodies trying to flee seem to really capture people’s imagination and bring home to visitors the emptiness, death and loss suffered by the city all that time ago,” she concluded. To read in-depth about work at one of Pompeii's most iconic buildings, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."