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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, August 21

When Did Neanderthals Really Go Extinct?

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Scientists using new, more precise radiocarbon dating techniques to study 40 Paleolithic sites from across Europe have determined that our close genetic cousins disappeared from Europe between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago. "I think that for the first time, we have a reliable extinction date for Neanderthals," University of Oxford scientist Tom Higham told Livescience. The new findings suggest that the two species may have coexisted for up to 5,400 years and that modern humans did not quickly wipe out the Neanderthals, as some scholars believe. Rather, they could have dramatically influenced each other both culturally and genetically. Higham notes that the Neanderthal extinction event "might have been more complex and drawn out than previously thought." To read about the debate over cloning our closest extinct relatives, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Should We Clone Neanderthals?" 

Oldest Metal Object Unearthed in the Middle East

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Archaeologists excavating at an ancient village in the Jordan Valley dating between 5200 and 4600 B.C. have discovered a copper awl that is believed to be the oldest metal object yet unearthed in the Middle East. According to a University of Haifa press release, the awl was discovered in the grave of a 40-year-old woman who was also buried with a belt made of 1,688 ostrich-egg shell beads. “The appearance of the item in a woman’s grave, which represents one of the most elaborate burials we’ve seen in our region from that era, testifies to both the importance of the awl and the importance of the woman, and it’s possible that we are seeing here the first indications of social hierarchy and complexity,” says dig leader and University of Haifa archaeologist Danny Rosenberg. The discovery pushes back the appearance of metal in the area by several hundred years, and chemical testing of the awl has revealed it was made of copper from the Caucasus Mountains, more than 600 miles away, suggesting long-range trade may have been more prevalent during the period than previously thought. To read about the elaborate burial of a Copper Age woman unearthed in England, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "High Status Burial Unearthed in Windsor." 

Sea Mammals Spread Deadly Tuberculosis

PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Professor Anne Stone of Arizona State University may have provided an answer to one of science’s great debates—the origins of tuberculosis in the New World. Stone’s new research shows that tuberculosis likely spread from humans in Africa to seals and sea lions that brought the infection to South America, where it was eventually transmitted to the native population. For their work, researchers collected ancient DNA samples and tested them for the presence of TB. Three of the samples taken from sites in Peru dating to between A.D. 750 and 1350 showed evidence of TB infection and the genome could be mapped and studied. The researchers discovered that the ancient strains of TB were most closely related to strains present in pinnipeds. “What we found was really surprising. The ancient strains are distinct from any known human-adapted tuberculosis strain,” Stone told the ASU NewsTo read more about tuberculosis in the ancient Andes, see ARCHAEOLOGY’S “Diagnosis of Ancient Illness.”    

Geometric Tomb Uncovered in Corinth

CORINTH, GREECE—Archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens have revealed the results of their excavation of a tomb in the important ancient Greek city of Corinth. The tomb, which dates to between 800 and 750 B.C. contained a burial pit filled with a limestone sarcophagus with a single person buried inside, reports Livescience. Next to the sarcophagus the team found several pottery vessels, as well as a sealed niche containing 13 almost complete pots. Many of the pots are decorated with zig-zagging patterns of lines and spirals that give this era of Greek history, often called the Geometric Period, its name.

Wednesday, August 20

Bronze Age Irish Cooking Trough

GALWAY, IRELAND—On Ireland's western coastline, archaeologists have unearthed an oaken structure that they suspect is a complete Bronze Age fulacht fiadh, or wooden cooking trough. The structure was was exposed by storms last winter and spotted by a local resident. "It is very significant, as it is unusual to find a fulacht fiadh at such a level of preservation, but the sea obviously conserved it when levels began to rise,” Ireland's Underwater Archaeology Unit's Finnbar Moore told the Irish Times. Radiocarbon dating of the structure puts its construction around 1700 B.C., when the area would have been covered in forests and lagoons. Archaeologists took the opportunity to survey around the fulacht fiadh before excavation. "It highlights the fact that there was several thousand years of human activity in this area before sea level rise, and this part of the coastline, and further, is akin to a time capsule—with enormous potential,” says Moore. To read more about fulachtaí fia, read ARCHAEOLOGY's "Letter From Ireland: Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh." 

Excavation Continues at Massive Hellenistic Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Archaeologists excavating the enormous tomb at Amphipolis have decided not to remove the two sphinxes guarding the entrance, reports Ekathemerini. The winged lions, which weigh nearly 1.5 tons each, will remain in situ as the archaeologists work to gain access to the tomb’s interior. A black and white geometric mosaic will also be left in place while excavation and stabilization work continues in the hopes that the tomb can soon be entered safely as there is significant risk of collapse once the tomb is opened. For more on the discovery read ARCHAEOLOGY's "Massive Hellenistic Tomb Discovered in Northern Greece." 

Workshops at Fortified Celtic Settlement Exposed

BURGUNDY, FRANCE—Polish archaeologists are unearthing metal workshops at the site of a 2,000-year-old Celtic oppidum, or fortified settlement, in central France. Led by University of Rzeszów archaeologist Tomasz Bochnak, the team is working near the settlement's main gate, and has so far identified bronze-smith and enamelers' workshops, according to Science & Scholarship in Poland. "This year, we discover[ed] mainly traces of metallurgical operations, primarily slags, but also coins and fibulas, or pins," says Bochnak. "After two weeks of work we have also dug up close to 100 kg [220 lbs] of fragments of ancient amphorae. This number is likely to increase significantly before the study ends." The oppidum was a stronghold of a powerful Celtic tribe known as the Aedui, and was founded in the late third or early second century B.C. The settlement was abandoned not long after the Romans defeated a coalition of Celtic tribes in 52 B.C. To read about the excavation of a Celtic oppidum in Turkey, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Celtic Sacrifice."   

Dozens of Anglo-Saxon Burials Uncovered

SALISBURY PLAIN, ENGLAND—More than a dozen new Anglo-Saxon graves have been found at the site of Barrow Clump. The site, which has now been backfilled, was originally a Neolithic settlement that was later used as a burial mound in the Bronze Age and even later as a Saxon cemetery. According to Culture24, a team from Wessex Archaeology has now discovered a total of 75 graves dating to the Anglo-Saxon period at Barrow Clump, one of which contained a skeleton in a crouched fetal position along with numerous weapons. In addition to the warrior’s grave, three female burials were found, each containing glass beads in a wide range of shapes, colors, and sizes. The team was also able to locate the original 19th-century excavation trench, something they had been unable to do in earlier seasons, explains Wessex Archaeology’s Steve Winterton. To read about the excavation of a royal Anglo-Saxon feasting hall, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "The Kings of Kent." 

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.”