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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, August 19

Several Paleolithic Cultures Flourished In North Africa

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A new study of Paleolithic stone tools from 17 sites in North Africa shows that between 130,000 and 75,000 years ago, there were at least four separate populations in the region, each with its own distinctive cultural traits, reports phys.org. Researchers led by University of Oxford visiting scholar Eleanor Scerri made 300,000 measurements on stone tools and combined the data with enviromental reconstuctions of prehistoric North Africa to analyze how modern human populations dispersed across the Sahara using ancient rivers and streams that no longer exist. "This is the first time that scientists have identified that early modern humans at the cusp of dispersal out of Africa were grouped in separate, isolated and local populations," says Scerri. "Our picture of modern human demography around 100,000 years ago is that there were a number of populations, varying in size and degree of genetic contact, distributed over a wide geographical area." According to SScerri , the team's work supports the theory that modern humans left Africa before 60,000-50,000 years ago.  

Barcelona's Black Death Victims

BARCELONA, SPAIN—According to a report in El Pais, excavations under the Basilica of Sant Just i Pastor in the heart of Barcelona have uncovered 120 bodies in a mass grave under the sacristy that researchers believe are evidence of the Black Death. The mass burial dates to the height of the epidemic, between 1348 and 1375, and is the first such site discovered in Spain. Thus the discovery may be very important to further understanding the spread of a disease that killed as many as 30 million people in Europe, as well as the way cities handled the massive influx of bodies. In cities like London, new cemeteries were built to bury the tremendous numbers of dead, but this find is evidence that in Spain space may have been found in existing church graveyards.

Roman Gold Coin Discovered in Sweden

ÖLAND, SWEDEN—For three years archaeologists have been digging at a site on the island of Öland looking for evidence of the Migration Period of Scandinavian history, between A.D. 400 to 550. According to a report in the Local, the team recently found the first Roman gold coin to be uncovered in an archaeological context on the site. The coin, a denomination called a solidus, was discovered in a house where several people had been killed. Researchers believe that it may have been dropped and left behind by thieves who had come to rob the house, and then murdered its residents. “I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery—an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them," project manager Helena Victor told the paper. For more on the massacre, see "Massacre at Sweden’s Sandby Borg Discovered."

Nanotechnology and Ancient Egyptian Mummies

BOISE, IDAHO—Significant advances in nanotechnology are helping researchers analyze the type of pigments used to paint mummy portraits in ancient Egypt. Scientists at Boise State University, lead by Materials Science and Engineering professor Darryl Butt, have taken a sliver of wood smaller than a human hair and extracted five extraordinarily tiny fragments—about 20 nanometers wide—and two thin foils of purple paint from a Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait dating to between A.D. 170 and 180. "So far we've learned that the paint is a synthetic pigment," says Butt. “These are very vibrant pigments, possibly heated in a lead crucible. People thought that process had been developed in the 1800s or so. This could prove it happened a lot earlier." It’s also possible that by understanding more about the pigment, scholars may also be able to learn more about the identity of the deceased, who is currently known only as “Bearded Man.”

Monday, August 18

Maya Cities Rediscovered in the Yucatan

CAMPECHE, MEXICO—Archaeologists have rediscovered two massive ancient Maya cities in the Yucatan that were hidden by dense vegetation. Dubbed Lagunita and Tamchen, the sites were found by a team led by Ivan Sprajc, of the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts Aerial, and are just a few miles from Chactun, an ancient city discovered by the same team in 2013 (See ARCHAEOLOGY"s "City of Red Stone" for more on the discovery of Chactun.) The researchers found the sites after examining aerial photography of the area. "In the jungle you can be as little as 600 feet from a large site and not even suspect it might be there; small mounds are all over the place, but they give you no idea about where an urban center might be," Sprajc told Discovery News. Both sites feature plazas surrounded by palace-like buildings, as well as pyramids, one of which reaches 65 feet high, and ball courts. At Lagunita, the team recovered a badly eroded stele enscribed with the date November 29, A.D. 711 and a facade depicting an earth monster opening its jaws.

Richard III's Rich Royal Diet

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—According to a new analysis of Richard III's teeth, femur, and ribs, the monarch made infamous by Shakespeare drank plenty of wine and dined on expensive wildfowl and fresh fish. The latest study on the king's remains, which were buried in 1485 after he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth and discovered two years ago beneath a parking lot in Leicester, was carried out by British Geological Survey scientist Jane Evans. She analyzed the nitrogen and oxygen isotope levels in the bones, which contain a record of what a person ate and drank. Livescience reports that Evans found a quarter of the oxygen deposited in Richard III's bones was from wine, and that the nitrogen isotope levels suggest that he ate wildfowl such as swan and egret, as well as freshwater fish such as pike. To read ARCHAEOLOGY's previous coverage of the royal discovery, go to "The Twenty-First Century Autopsy of Richard III." 

Bronze Age Burial in the Scottish Highlands

ARDNAMURCHAN PENINSULA, SCOTLAND—In a remote area of the western Scottish Highlands, a team of archaeologists excavating under a pile of rocks known as Ricky’s Cairn has uncovered a Bronze Age burial cist containing at least two bodies, reports The Press and Journal. Originally thought to contain the remains of only one individual, team leader Ollie Harris of the University of Leicester was surprised that, in fact, it appeared as if at least two people had been buried together. Says Harris, “this offers a different perspective on Bronze Age burials” which usually contain the remains of only one individual in a crouching position. Although the cist was heavily robbed and contained only a few “scraps” of bone, team leader Ollie Harris hopes that the remains will be able to be radiocarbon dated.

Neolithic Finds in Cyprus

PAPHOS REGION, CYPRUS—According to a report in the Cyprus Mail, archaeologists working at the site of Kretou Marottou-Ais Yiorkis have uncovered an early Neolithic grave that may be the one of the earliest human burials on the island. The adult male was found along with a large assemblage of chipped stones and animal bones including deer and pig. The team also discovered cattle bones, the earliest such examples to be recorded on Cyprus. The researchers say that the grave is “especially significant” not only for its human skeletal contents, which are extremely rare for this period, but also for its location in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. Most Neolithic sites in Cyprus are found near the coast. “Kretou Marottou-Ais Yiorkis continues to be an important site for better understanding the early colonization of Cyprus,” reads a statement from the Cypriot Department of Antiquities.

Friday, August 15

The Western Wall's Wear Patterns

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—According to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, geologists investigating the Western Wall have revealed that they think they know why some parts of the structure are eroding faster than others, a major concern for the wall’s long-term stability. By using lasers to scan the wall to create a 3-D model, they discovered that the wall is made of different kinds of limestone with different erosion patterns. They then collected stones from quarries thought to have supplied at least some of the ancient building material, and subjected it to tests intended to simulate the effect of erosion over the past 2,000 years since the wall was built. The team learned that while limestone with large crystals were more resistant to erosion, that made up of smaller crystals eroded much more quickly. The scientists’ results could have important lessons for the conservation of Western Wall, as well as ancient structures around the globe, says lead researcher Simon Emanuel. 

A 200-Year-Old Bottle's Surprising Contents

POLAND, BALTIC SEA—According to a report in Livescience, a 200-year-old stoneware bottle excavated from a shipwreck off the Polish coast contains an alcohol distillate, perhaps vodka or a type of gin called jenever. And, say the researchers, the spirit is still drinkable even after two centuries at the bottom of the sea. Originally the archaeologists thought the bottle contained a popular type of mineral water called “Selters” whose name is engraved on the outside, and which is still sold in the area. But once they popped the cork and analyzed the vessel’s contents, they discovered its true contents. The shipwreck also yielded ceramic bowls, and dinnerware, though project head Tomasz Bednarz says the bottle of booze “is our most valuable find.”

More Evidence of Fourth-Century Earthquake in Cyprus

KOURION, CYPRUS—More evidence of the massive earthquake that devastated this part of Cyprus in the fourth century A.D. has been found, says Cyprus Mail. During excavations this summer, a team led by Thomas W. Davis of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, uncovered the remains of two adults, a young child, and an infant, possibly an entire family lying close together trying to shelter under a building that may have been their home. The structure likely collapsed during the quake, burying its residents. In addition to the family’s remains, in the house the team also uncovered luxury goods including a yellow and green glass plate imported from Egypt. The city of Kourion was well known and written about frequently in antiquity, including by such authors as Ptolemy and Pliny, and has a long and rich history from at least the fourth century B.C. through the Christian eras.   

Neanderthals Were Excellent Butchers

QUINCEAUX, FRANCE—A Middle Paleolithic site in southwestern France has produced hundreds of bones belonging mostly to large animals, as well as flints, evidence of prehistoric butchering by the area’s Neanderthal inhabitants some 35,000 to 55,000 years ago, reports horsetalk. According to the researchers, the bones of horses were particularly numerous—although there were also wooly rhinoceros, bison, reindeer, mammoth, bear, and even a few wolf bones—and are a result of Neanderthal hunting and scavenging. In many cases, the animals’ long bones are missing, perhaps evidence that the meatier parts were butchered and then taken away, and the carcasses left behind. The excavation, which was originally scheduled to end soon so road construction can begin at the site, has been determined to be of such significance that the archaeologists have been given extra time to investigate.