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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, July 23

Timber From 5,000-Year-Old Fort Found in Wales

MONMOUTH, WALES—A timber that once supported a crannog, or fortified farmhouse on stilts, was found in the remains of a post-glacial lake two years ago during the construction of a new housing development. The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasow has radiocarbon dated the timber to 2917 B.C., making this crannog 2,000 years older than the only other known crannog in England and Wales. “The timber, bearing cut marks left by stone or flint axes, formed the end of an oak post which had been carefully levelled to create a flat surface which would probably have rested on a post pad set in the bottom of the lake,” archaeologist Steve Clarke, founder of the Monmouth Archaeological Society, told the South Wales Argus. To read about another crannog in the British Isles, go to "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."

Burial of Bronze-Age Teen Discovered in England

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—The 4,000-year-old skeleton of an adolescent has been uncovered by a team from the University of Reading at Wilsford Henge in the Vale of Pewsey, an area located between Stonehenge and Avebury. The child had been buried in the fetal position, and had been wearing an amber necklace. “The skeleton is a wonderful discovery which will help tell us what life was like for those who lived under the shadow of Stonehenge at a time of frenzied activity. Scientific analysis will provide information on the gender of the child, diet, pathologies and date of burial. It may also shed light on where this young individual had lived,” Jim Leary of the University of Reading told BT News. The excavation has also recovered flint blades, decorated pottery, shale and copper bracelets, and a Roman brooch. To read more, go to "Under Stonehenge."

Human Limb Bones Unearthed in Xuchang, China

XUCHANG, CHINA—The 100,000-year-old remains of at least nine individuals have so far been unearthed at the Lingjing Historical Site in central China by a team from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. Two of the limb bones, which may have belonged to the same young individual, carry bite marks. “We are not quite sure whether those [bite marks] were from predators or other humans,” researcher Li Zhanyang told China Daily. Sixteen pieces of a skull known as Xuchang Man that still bore traces of a fossilized membrane were recovered from the site in 2008. “Different from the ancient human skull fossils that were discovered eight years ago, the first discovery of limb bone fossils provides more opportunities to decode the process of human evolution,” Li said. For more on archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Evidence of “Trial Cultivation” Found in Israel

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL—Evidence of small-scale agriculture has been found at a 23,000-year-old camp site on the shore of Israel’s Sea of Galilee. Scientists from Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University, Tel Aviv University, and Harvard University found that the site had more domestic wheat and barley than was expected, in addition to plants, or proto-weeds, that are usually found in fields planted with crops. Microscopic examination of the cutting edges of blades from the site found silicon that may have been transferred during the cutting and harvesting of the cereal plants. The site, once underwater, has also yielded six dwellings, a grave, traces of more than 140 different plant species, remains of animal foods, beads, and worked flint. “The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions,” Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University said in a press release. The team also found evidence that the cereals were processed on a grinding slab set on the floor of one of the brush huts. Flat stones found outside another shelter may have been used to bake dough. To read about another recent prehistoric discovery in the region, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel." 

Wednesday, July 22

Qur’an Manuscript Is One of World’s Oldest

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Fragments of two parchment leaves on which text of the Qur’an had been written have been radiocarbon dated to between A.D. 568 and 645. The manuscript, held at the University of Birmingham, is thought to have been written shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who probably lived between A.D. 570 and 632, making it one of the oldest surviving examples of the book. The text contains parts of the Suras 18 to 20, and is written is an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. These leaves had been bound with similar leaves that date to the late seventh century. “The radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an folios has yielded a startling result and reveals one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collections. They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” David Thomas of the University of Birmingham said in a press release. To read about an early medieval Christian manuscript discovered in an Irish bog, go to "Artifact: The Faddan More Psalter."

Hohle Fels Cave Yields Paleolithic Figurine Fragments

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Two fragments of a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory have been found in Hohle Fels Cave. The fragments resemble a breast and part of the stomach of the 40,000-year-old figurine known as the Venus from Hohle Fels, which was discovered in 2008. This carving may have been slightly larger, however, than the approximately two-inch-tall Venus. “The new discovery indicates that the female depictions are not as rare in the Aurignacian as previously thought, and that concerns about human sexuality, reproduction and fertility in general have a very long and rich history dating to the Ice Age,” Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen said in a press release. To read about another masterpiece of Paleolithic art, go to "New Life for Lion Man."

The Peopling of the New World

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new large-scale genome study is adding to the debate over how the peopling of the Americas occurred. An international team of scientists sampled several present-day Native American and Siberian populations, in addition to ancient DNA samples from across the Americas. “Our study presents the most comprehensive picture of the genetic prehistory of the Americas to date. We show that all Native Americans, including the major sub-groups of Amerindians and Athabascans, descend from the same migration wave into the Americas. This was distinct from later waves that gave rise to the Paleo-Eskimo and Inuit populations in the New World Arctic region,” Maanasa Raghavan of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen said in a press release. The results also indicate that the initial migration took place no earlier than 23,000 years ago, when Native Americans split from East Asian and Siberian populations. Ancestral Native Americans may then have been isolated in Beringia for some 8,000 years, since the oldest archaeological evidence in the Americas is about 15,000 years old. The study also found that some 13,000 years ago, this population split into northern and southern branches. Gene flow between some Native American groups and present-day East Asians and Australo-Melanesians was also detected. “It is a surprising finding and it implies that New World populations were not completely isolated from the Old World after their initial migration. We cannot say exactly how and when this gene flow happened, but one possibility is that it came through the Aleutian Islanders living off the coast of Alaska,” added Eske Willerslev, who headed the study. To read more about the peopling of the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."  

4,000-Year-Old Egyptian Reliefs Unearthed

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damaty announced the discovery of two carvings by archaeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology. The reliefs were uncovered in the temple of Serapis in the ancient port city of Berenice, located on the Red Sea coast. One of the reliefs has been dated to the Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 B.C.) because it bears the cartouche of the 12th Dynasty king Amenemhat IV. The other has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period (1674-1549 B.C.), although it is not as well preserved as the first. The reliefs are older than the port city, which was built by Ptolemy II in the third century B.C. To read about a recently unearthed temple to the god Amun, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Tuesday, July 21

Genetic Study Links Amazonians and Australasians

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—A genetic study has revealed that the Tupí-speaking Suruí and Karitiana, and the Ge-speaking Xavante peoples of the Amazon had an ancestor more closely related to indigenous Australasians than other present-day populations. “We’ve done a lot of sampling in East Asia and nobody looks like this. It’s an unknown group that doesn’t exist anymore,” Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School said in a press release. Skoglund and population geneticist David Reich have labeled this ancestor group Population Y, after the Tupí word for ancestor, “Ypykuéra.” They think that Population Y and the so-called First Americans, whose DNA resembles that of today’s Native Americans, traversed the Bering land bridge into North America more than 15,000 years ago. “We don’t know the order, the time separation or the geographical patterns,” Skoglund said. The team would need DNA from a member of Population Y to determine how much it contributed to today’s Amazonians. “We have a broad view of the deep origins of Native American ancestry, but within that diversity we know very little about the history of how those populations relate to each other,” Reich said. To read about the earliest migration to the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."

The Earliest-Known Chicken Dinners

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Archaeological evidence suggests that chickens were used in cockfighting in Southeast Asia as early as 8,000 years ago, and that the birds and the sport reached the Levant some 5,000 years ago. Now more than 1,000 chicken bones have been unearthed at Maresha, a city that flourished in what is now southern Israel between 400 and 200 B.C., on the trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt. Here there were twice as many female bird bones as males, and the bones showed signs of butchering, indicating that the birds had been raised for meat, and probably eggs. “This is a matter of culture. You have to decide that you are eating chicken from now on,” Lee Perry-Gal of the University of Haifa told NPR. Just one hundred years later, chickens had spread across Europe. For more on chicken's significance in the archaeological record, go to "Polynesian Chickens in Chile."

Radiocarbon Dating Endangered by Air Pollution

LONDON, ENGLAND—Fossil fuel emissions could soon make it impossible for radiocarbon dating to distinguish between new items and artifacts that are hundreds of years old, according to a study by Heather Graven of Imperial College London. Fossil fuels are so old that they contain no radioactive carbon-14. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the fraction of carbon-14 in an object, so fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere that are taken up by plants make an object seem to be older than it really is. For example, at the rate that fossil fuel emissions are increasing, by 2050, a new t-shirt would have the same radiocarbon date as a 1,000-year-old robe. “If we reduced fossil fuel emissions, it would be good news for radiocarbon dating,” Graven said in a press release. To read about an innovative dating technique, go to "Nondestructive Radiocarbon Dating."

Study Questions Identification of Remains in Macedonian Tombs

KOMOTINI, GREECE—A new analysis of bones from the tomb complex at Vergina suggests that the remains of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, were laid to rest in Tomb I, and not Tomb II, as scholars have speculated for decades. Philip II, who, according to historical records, limped from a battle injury, was assassinated in 336 B.C. His young wife Cleopatra and her infant daughter died days later in the Macedonian royal intrigue. Antonis Bartsiokas of Democritus University of Thrace and Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid say that the remains of the man in Tomb I was in his 40s when he died, and had suffered an injury that left his left femur fused to his tibia and locked in a 79-degree angle. A hole in the bone suggests the wound had been caused by a projectile and not disease. The tomb also contained the remains of a young woman and a newborn child. But not all scholars are convinced of the identification. “I think that we have made a very strong case. Now the focus of attention will turn to Tomb I. I am open to debate,” Arsuaga told Live Science. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's tomb, go to "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."