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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, August 18

Urban Rabbit Farm Found at Teotihuacán

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—Rabbits were an important commodity in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán, according to a report in New Scientist. The city reached its height from the first century A.D. through 550 A.D. and had around 100,000 residents, making it the largest urban area in the Americas at the time. Andrew Somerville of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues discovered an apartment complex filled with rabbit bones and obsidian knives. The presence of baby rabbit remains suggests the animals were being bred and raised onsite, and a stone rabbit sculpture atop a courtyard temple indicates the residents specialized in rabbits. Further evidence that the rabbits were domesticated came from isotopic analysis of their bones, which showed that up to three-quarters of their diet came from crops grown by people. “This study does a great job of showing the innovations in this urban society for cultivating their own protein sources,” said David Carballo, an archaeologist at Boston University, who was not involved in the study. “It gives you a good idea of what regular folks were up to in this city.” To read about another discovery at Teotihuacán, go to “Mythological Mercury Pool.”

“Magic” Shoe Discovered inside University Wall

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Maintenance work at Cambridge University’s St. John’s College has revealed a 300-year-old shoe hidden inside the wall of a common room. According to the Cambridge News, the well-worn shoe was likely secreted inside the wall between a chimney and a window in order to prevent evil spirits from entering the room, which would have been part of the private residence of the college’s master. "Given its location, it is very likely that it was there to play a protective role for the master of the college,” says Richard Newman of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. “It may even have been one of his old shoes." The college plans to replace the shoe inside the wall together with a time capsule once work in the room is complete. To read more about protective rituals in England, go to “The Many Lives of an English Manor House.” 

Bronze Age Mausoleum Unearthed in Kazakhstan

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN—Archaeologists have unearthed a Bronze Age burial mound constructed of five walls in northern Kazakstan. "It's made from stone, earth, and fortified by slabs in the outer side," Saryarka Archaeological Institute researcher Viktor Novozhenov told Live Science. The height of the mausoleum's walls increases gradually the closer they are to the mound's center, which led some news outlets to compare the mausoleum to the step pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, Egypt. But Novozhenov points out that the mound was at most six feet tall, much smaller than the pyramid in Saqqara, which was built some 1,000 years earlier. Though the tomb had been looted, the team found late Bronze Age pottery as well as a bronze knife near its main chamber, which likely once held the remains of a chieftain or clan leader. To read more about Bronze Age archaeology on the Eurasian steppes, go to "Wolf Rites of Winter."

Early-19th-Century Shipwreck Identified in Lake Ontario

ALBANY, NEW YORK—The AP reports that a wreck recently discovered in Lake Ontario is believed to be the second-oldest ship ever found in the Great Lakes. The 53-foot-long single-masted sloop, called the Washington, was carrying cargo including goods from India when it set out from Kingston, Ontario, for Niagara, Ontario, on November 6, 1803. It ran into a fierce storm and sank, killing all on board, including at least three crewmembers and two merchants. Explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens found the wreck in deep water off Oswego, New York, where pieces of wreckage reportedly washed ashore the day after the Washington sank. They confirmed the ship was the Washington based on footage from a remotely operated vehicle. The discovery of the wreck will help historians learn more about the design and construction of sloops used on the Great Lakes in the early nineteenth century. “Every shipwreck offers something different that adds to our knowledge base,” said Carrie Sowden, archaeological director at the National Museum of the Great Lakes, which sponsored the exploration. The oldest ship to sink in the Great Lakes was the HMS Ontario, a British warship that sank in Lake Ontario in 1780. For more about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”

Wednesday, August 17

Excavation Underway at Montana Fort

FORT BENTON, MONTANA—The Great Falls Tribune reports that an archaeological dig is underway to determine where the southwest blockhouse of Fort Benton stood so that it can be rebuilt. The fort, which was established in 1847 by the American Fur Company to provide access to the local fur trade, originally had two blockhouses, or defensive towers, that stood at opposite ends. The fort was sold to the Northwest Fur Company in 1865, and it was taken over by the United States Army four years later. The fort’s northeast blockhouse is thought to be the oldest building in Montana, but the southwest one was dismantled upward of 120 years ago, and its bricks were used to build nearby houses and buildings. When floods came in 1908, its remaining pieces were used to help build a levee. The blockhouses were equipped with slits to fire through and thick walls for protection, though the fort was in a relatively safe spot compared with others on the frontier. To read more, go to “Letter from Montana: The Buffalo Chasers.”

Researchers Hope to Track Ancient Solar Storms

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Researchers are proposing a new approach to dendrochronology, the dating method that utilizes ancient tree rings, according to a report in The Guardian. Japanese scientist Fusya Miyake had previously used ancient tree rings to identify an unusual spike in radiocarbon activity at A.D. 775, which she concluded was caused by a violent solar storm. A subsequent "Miyake event" was also identified at A.D. 994. Now Oxford University scientists Michael Dee and Benjamin Pope hope to search the dendrochronological record for similar spikes. “There must be more of these events and we will try and find where we should look for them," says Dee. Identifying more Miyake events could help archaeologists refine so-called "floating chronologies," or records not tied to calendar years, such as those currently used to date events in Old Kingdom Egypt and the Bronze Age. To read about another novel approach to dating, go to “Nondestructive Radiocarbon Dating.” 

Shipwrecks in Southern England Protected

DEVON, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that three shipwrecks in England have been given official government protection based on the advice of maritime archaeology experts. They include a wreck thought to be the remains of the Sally, which ran aground on the north coast of Devon with a shipment of port wine from Portugal in September 1769. Its decaying timbers are visible during the lowest tides of the year on a stretch of beach that has since been renamed “Westward Ho!” to attract fans of a Victorian novel of the same name. “The timbers are exceptionally well preserved, giving the whole outline of the ship,” says Mark Dunkley, a maritime archaeologist with Historic England, “and they match the unusual circumstances of the loss of the Sally, which was driven stern first on to the beach.” One of the other wrecks granted protection, a small eighteenth-century merchant ship, is nearby. Farther away, on the south coast, is the wreck of a boat dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Its well-preserved timbers reveal some of the techniques used to build it, and some contents, including a wooden bowl, have been found intact inside it. To read about a wreck discovered in the Arctic, go to “Franklin’s Last Voyage.”

Elaborate Tomb Discovered in China

DATONG, CHINA—LiveScience reports that an excavation in northern China conducted ahead of a construction project revealed the elaborate 1,500-year-old burial of a high-status woman. According to a stone epitaph found at the entrance to the tomb, it held the remains of a woman named Han Farong who was the wife of a magistrate and lived at a time when the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-534) ruled the area. Farong was buried with a necklace made up of some 5,000 beads, as well as gold earrings inlaid with gemstones that depict dragons and human faces. The style of the earrings is similar to artifacts discovered in Afghanistan in 1978, suggesting some degree of contact between the regions at the time. To read about another dramatic burial discovered in China, go to “Tomb from a Lost Tribe.” 

Tuesday, August 16

Roman Artifacts Unearthed at English Nursery

NORFOLK, ENGLAND—An excavation in a field next to a nursery in the town of Aylsham has turned up two pottery kilns, thousands of broken pots, late Roman coins, and pieces of jewelry, according to a report in the Eastern Daily Press. Among the most notable finds is a piece of kiln lining with the finger and thumbprints of its Roman maker clearly visible. Archaeologists believe that the nursery is on the site of a Roman villa that included a bathhouse. John Davies, chief curator and keeper of archaeology with Norfolk Museums Service, notes that the site provides insight into what rural Norfolk was like in Roman times, as contrasted with urban sites such as Caistor and St. Edmund. The presence of the kilns also raises questions. “It’s very interesting—were the kilns a small-scale industry or were they serving the villa?” asks Davies. To read about another Roman site in England, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”

3,000-Year-Old Brain Surgery Reconstructed

KANSK, RUSSIA—Siberian archaeologists have completed their study of a skull belonging to a man who died between the ages of 30 and 40 that was discovered last year at a Bronze Age burial ground in the region of Krasnoyarsk. The Siberian Times reports the skull bore obvious traces of trepanation, or brain surgery, which in ancient times was carried out for both medical and ritual reasons. In this case, the researchers suspect the trepanation was likely medical in nature, and that although the patient survived the surgery and lived for a time afterwards, he may have died because of post-operative inflammation. In reconstructing the incisions made in the skull, the researchers suspect the "surgeon" had an assistant helping complete the procedure. To read more about archaeology in Siberia, go to “Fortress of Solitude.”

Obsidian Tools Found by Oregon Landowner

PORTLAND, OREGON—Archaeologists have unearthed an unusual collection of obsidian tools after being tipped off by a landowner in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, according to a report from OPB. The landowner, a math and science teacher, came across 14 of the tools while digging out a spring on his property. He contacted state archaeologist John Pouley who identified them as bifaces that could be converted with some work into scrapers, spearpoints, or arrowheads. Pouley estimated that the tools dated back 1,000 to 4,000 years and came from the Santiam Band of the Kalapuya people. In a June excavation, attended by some of the landowner’s students, archaeologists found a fifteenth biface along with other stone tools. The artifacts were determined to have come from a quarry called Obsidian Cliffs 80 miles away in the Cascade Mountains. The bifaces did not have any flakes missing, so it appears that whoever transported them from the quarry was planning to sell them. “It seems likely that this was part of a trade network and these themselves were commodities,” said Pouley. For more on archaeology in Oregon, go to “Site of a Forgotten War.”