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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, October 17

German Castle Yields Possible 17th-Century Murder Victim

LUND, SWITZERLAND—Motherboard reports that human bones discovered at Leine Castle in Niedersachsen, Germany, are thought to belong to Philip Christoph Königsmarck, a Swedish count who disappeared in 1694 after visiting his mistress, Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle. She was unhappily married to Georg Ludwig, prince elector of Hanover, who later became King George I of England. More than 300 love letters, some of which were written in cipher, between Königsmarck and the princess have been preserved at Lund University. The two had planned to run away together, but their affair was revealed and Königsmarck disappeared. Many suspected that Ludwig had the count murdered, but Königsmarck’s body was never found. (Ludwig exiled Sophia Dorothea to Castle Ahlden, where she died, 32 years later.) A team of researchers from the University of Göttingen will try to match DNA samples from the bones with samples from Königsmarck’s living relatives. To read about another discovery in Germany, go to “World’s Oldest Pretzels.”

Cancer-Causing HPV May Have Come From Interbreeding

BARCELONA, SPAIN—According to a report in Laboratory Equipment, a new study of a cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV16) suggests that its variants evolved separately with archaic and modern humans. HPV does not leave any trace of infection in the bones, so it was not possible to extract ancient forms of the virus from human remains. Instead, scientists Ville Pimenoff of the Catalan Institute of Oncology and Ignacio Bravo of the French National Center for Scientific Research sequenced the genome of the HPV16 virus and its five main lineage subtypes, then reconstructed its evolution over thousands of generations with computer algorithms. Their results suggest that variant A evolved with archaic humans, while three other variants evolved with modern humans. Migrating modern humans then may have been infected with viral variant A through sexual contact with Neanderthals and Denisovans. The study suggests that variant A was able to thrive in the modern human population because the modern human immune system had not evolved the mechanisms necessary to keep it in check. The researchers say that this could explain why the HPV16A variant is rarely found in sub-Saharan Africa, while it is the most common variant in the rest of the world. To read in-depth about the study of microbes in the archaeological record, go to “Worlds Within Us.”

Shipment of 16th-Century Chinese Porcelain Unearthed in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Xinhua reports that thousands of fragments of a 400-year-old of shipment of Chinese porcelain have been discovered by Mexican archaeologists in the Old Quarter of Acapulco. The white and blue rice bowls, cups, plates, and platters are decorated with images from nature, including birds, beetles, swans, ducks, and deer, and date to the reign of the Ming Dynasty emperor Wanli, who ruled from 1572 to 1620. Archaeologist Roberto Junco of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said that the pottery was made in southern China, in the city of Zhangzhou, and in the city of Jingdezhen, known as the “Porcelain Capital.” The luxury goods were probably carried to Mexico by Spanish ships that traveled between the port of Acapulco and Manilla in the Philippines. The cargo may have been destroyed by pirates. For more, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Previously Unknown Compounds Identified in Frankincense

NICE, FRANCE—Live Science reports that researchers led by Nicolas Baldovini of the Institute de Chimie de Nice have identified two molecules responsible for the unique scent of frankincense, often recognized today as “old church” smell. Frankincense comes from the resin of gum trees from the Boswellia genus, and was a key element in perfumes from Mesopotamia and Egypt dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. The chemical structures of the two new compounds, named olibanic acids, are mirror images of each other, and are found in extremely low levels in the essential oil of frankincense. The team was also able to synthesize synthetic versions of the molecules. “We patented the use of these compounds for fragrance formulation,” Baldovini said. For more on the relationship between archaeology and chemistry, go to “Mr. Jefferson’s Laboratory.”

Friday, October 14

Looking Beneath the Surface of Greek Pottery

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—The Daily Mail reports that a team of researchers from the Cantor Arts Center’s Art + Science Learning Lab and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory examined a 2,500-year-old Athenian oil flask with a technique called synchrotron X-ray fluorescence. The results of the test produced a chemical map of the paint on the vase, which suggests that an extra step was required to apply a calcium-based additive for the color white. “Under what they thought was a single coat, they found other instances of painting that the naked eye could not see,” said Jody Maxmin of Stanford University. In addition, it had been previously thought that zinc was added to produce black figures during the heating process on Greek vases, but the chemical map failed to show any zinc in the black regions of the pot. For more on Greece, go to “A New View of the Birthplace of the Olympics.”

“Spectacular” Rock Art Discovered in Spain

LEKEITIO, SPAIN—BBC News reports that some 50 Paleolithic etchings thought to be between 12,000 and 14,500 years old have been found in a difficult-to-access area of Armintxe Cave, located in northern Spain. The images include depictions of bison, goats, and horses, one of which measures nearly five feet long. Researchers also identified two lion images, which have not been seen before in the Basque country, and semi-circles and lines similar to those found in the French Pyrenees. Taken together, the lions, the semi-circles and lines, and the etching technique suggest that these artists in Biscay province might have been linked to those in the French Pyrenees. “It is a wonder, a treasure of humanity,” commented Biscay province official Unai Rementeria. For more on cave art, go to “The First Artists.”

Badger Unearthed 4,200-Year-Old Bones in Ireland

COUNTY CAVAN, IRELAND—The Irish Times reports that a badger unearthed ancient human remains at a burial site in Cavan Burren Park, known for its prehistoric monuments, megalithic tombs, rock art, and dwelling sites. A group of historians and archaeologists found the small pieces of cremated human bone and charcoal near a collapsed tomb. “Our badger just threw out the bones,” said historian Séamus Ó hUtlacháin. “They were no bigger than my nail, just scraps of bone. It is the oldest discovery in this region, a wonderful discovery.” Part of a femur from the site has been carbon dated by scientists at Queen’s University to between 2438 and 2200 B.C. To read more about animal excavators, go to “Critter Diggers.”

Thursday, October 13

Ancient Footprints Studied in Tanzania

ENGARE SERO, TANZANIA—The Washington Post reports that Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce of Appalachian State University led a team of researchers in the study of some 400 ancient Homo sapiens footprints that were discovered in northern Tanzania, near the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, about 10 years ago. The footprints are thought to have been made by men, women, and children in flood deposits that dried and then were covered with another layer of mud. Minerals in the footprint layers were dated to between 19,000 and 10,000 years ago with the argon-argon dating technique. Once the excavation team exposed the footprints, each one was photographed, 3-D scanned, and mapped. The researchers have found evidence of at least 24 individuals who crossed the mud in two directions. Some of the travelers were walking, and some may have been jogging. A subgroup of the researchers continues to investigate the size and composition of the group that left the footprints. “For people who work in prehistory, it’s incredibly rare to get that kind of snapshot in time,” said paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner of the National Museum of Natural History. For more on ancient footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”

Roman Settlement Uncovered in Rugby, England

RUGBY, ENGLAND—The Rugby Observer reports that an archaeological investigation ahead of the construction of a housing development in England’s West Midlands unearthed a 2,000-year-old Roman settlement, a well, and kilns where pottery was produced. They also found a waterlogged pit alignment dating to the late Bronze Age, between 1000 and 500 B.C. Samples from the pit will be tested for information about the local landscape, forest clearance, and agriculture. To read about other discoveries in this area, go to “They're Just Like Us.”

Australia’s Early Astronomers

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—ABC News Australia reports that the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in southeast Australia may have been used to track the movements of the sun some 11,000 years ago by early farmers, who, according to Duane Hamacher of Monash University, had a complex understanding of astronomy and the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars throughout the year. Traces of villages and evidence of farming terraces and eel traps have been found near the stone circle and a water source. “If you’re going to have a stone arrangement where you mark off the seasons throughout the year with the solstices and equinoxes, it kind of makes sense if you’re at least most of the year in one specific location to do that,” said custodian Reg Abrahams. He added that people may have navigated by the stars and traveled at night to avoid the heat of the day. Plans are being made for archaeological investigation and dating of the site. For more on ancient astronomy, go to “An Eye on Venus.”