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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 12

Some Viking Swords May Have Been Decorative

KONGENS LYNGBY, DENMARK—Three Viking Age swords from the National Museum of Denmark have been examined with neutron scans, according to a report in Live Science. “This is the first study which allowed us to virtually ‘slice’ Viking swords, showing how different materials have been combined together,” said materials scientist Anna Fedrigo of the Technical University of Denmark. All three swords date to the ninth or tenth century A.D., and came from the Central Jutland area of Denmark. And, all three swords were crafted with the pattern-welding technique, which folds, twists, and forges together thin strips of different kinds of iron and steel. But Fedrigo said that these kinds of swords may not have been designed for combat, since an iron core edged with harder steel would have made a better weapon. The high temperatures of the pattern-welding technique could also have left the weapons vulnerable to rust. She suggests that swords may have become symbols of power and status to elite Vikings, while more affordable axes, spears, and lances may have been used by seafaring raiders. For more, go to “Hoards of the Vikings.”

New Dates for Mongolia’s Nomadic Horse Culture

MUNICH, GERMANY—According to a report in The International Business Times, William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and colleagues have pushed back the date for the development of skilled horseback riding in Mongolia by several hundred years. The researchers radiocarbon dated the bones of domesticated horses that had been individually buried at monuments constructed by the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex in eastern Eurasia. The monuments include carved standing “deer stones,” and stone burial mounds known as khirigsuurs, where the heads, hooves, and upper neck bones of hundreds or even thousands of horses have been found near human remains. The team then produced a high-precision chronology model for the horse burials. The dates suggest that a horse-centered culture developed across the Mongol Steppe around 1200 B.C., at a time when a wetter climate may have offered better pastures for raising horses. “This really suggests a change in people’s relationship to horses,” Taylor explained. For more, go to “In Search of History's Greatest Rulers: Genghis Khan, Founder of the Mongol Empire.”

Tuesday, April 11

Traces of Roman City Uncovered in Southern England

HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—The St. Albans Review reports that construction work in southern England has uncovered traces of the Roman town of Verulamium. One area of the excavation uncovered a corner of the ancient city wall. “However, there is no evidence of a corner tower—this is significant as it suggests that the wall was built for show as well as for defense purposes,” said Simon West, archaeologist for St. Albans city and the District Council’s museum service. Another area of excavation revealed the interior of a Roman town house with an opus signinum floor, a cement-like surface made of pieces of broken tiles and mortar flattened with a rammer. For more on Roman England, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”

Herders May Have Arrived in the High Alps 7,000 Years Ago

BERN, SWITZERLAND—Swiss Info reports that shepherds may have been grazing their herds in pastures some 9,000 feet above sea level as early as 5000 B.C. Scientists from the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research at Bern University say that artifacts revealed by retreating ice indicates that the herders took their grazing animals from the dry slopes of the Lower Valais and hiked for two days to better pastures at the Bernese Oberland, located below the Schnidejoch Pass. The herders may have carried food in the wooden containers recently revealed by the melting ice. The scientists also analyzed sediment cores taken from nearby Lake Iffig, and found pollen dating back 7,000 years from plants that grow well in ground covered with dung. Spores from a fungus that grows on cattle dung were also detected. When ice returned to the Schnidejoch Pass some 1,000 years later, the pastures were no longer used. For more, go to “Switzerland Everlasting.”

Ancient Silk Road Riches Discovered in Inner Mongolia

HOHHOT, CHINA—Live Science reports that the excavation of six tombs in a 1,500-year-old, looted cemetery in Inner Mongolia has yielded a coffin containing a body covered in silk, and a silver bowl decorated with images of the Greek gods Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Chen Yongzhi of the Inner Mongolia Museum, Song Guodong of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and Ma Yan of Inner Mongolia University think five of the tombs might have belonged to an aristocratic family, perhaps of the Gaoche people, who were ruled by the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386 to 534). The sixth tomb dates to the Liao Dynasty, and is about 1,000 years old. The yellow silk has not yet been removed from the body, which was also adorned with a gold headband, necklace, belt, rings, and leather boots. The artifacts are thought to have been obtained through trade along ancient Silk Road routes. The body’s coffin was painted with an image of a blue-roofed house with red pillars. The tomb’s occupant was shown at the center of the house, surrounded by attendants wearing hoods. For more, go to “Letter from China: Tomb Raider ChroniclesTomb Raider Chronicles.”

Ancient Relatives of Bed Bugs Found in Oregon

EUGENE, OREGON—According to a report by ABC News, traces of cimicid insects, the ancient relatives of today’s bedbugs, have been found in Oregon’s Paisley Five Mile Point Cave, where humans lived intermittently over a period of 11,000 years, up to 13,500 years ago. The species of bugs found in the cave, estimated to be 5,100 to 11,000 years old, were bat parasites, but researchers think they may have bitten humans when they had the chance. Why didn’t these cimicids adapt to human hosts? Martin E. Adams of Paleoinsect Research thinks the human occupants of the cave may have moved too often for the bugs to come to rely on a diet of human blood while bats were also living in the cave. And, the occasional bed bug that did dine on a human host may not have survived the trip outside. Until this discovery, the oldest known example of a bed bug species was 3,550 years old, and had been found in Egypt. To read more about Oregon's Paisley Caves, go to “America, In the Beginning: Paisley Caves.”

Monday, April 10

Bitumen Fillings Discovered in Two Stone Age Teeth

BOLOGNA, ITALY—According to a report in New Scientist, a pair of 13,000-year-old, worn central incisors, found at the Riparo Fredian site in northern Italy, bear evidence of therapeutic dental practices. Archaeologist Stephano Benazzi of the University of Bologna said that each human tooth has a large hole on its surface that extends into the pulp chamber. Tiny marks on the insides of the holes, viewed with microscopic techniques, suggest that the teeth had areas of decay that were drilled out with stone tools. Traces of bitumen, plant fibers, and hairs were also found in the holes. Benazzi and his colleagues think the bitumen, a natural antiseptic, was added to reduce pain to the patient and keep food debris out of the pulp chamber. Benazzi adds that at about this time, people from the Near East arrived in Europe with new foods that could have led to more cavities. “This change in diet and cavities could have led to dentistry,” he said. For more, go to “Paleo-Dentistry.”

14,000-Year-Old Mammoth Tusk Found in Alaska

GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK—Live Science reports that a large, 14,000-year-old mammoth tusk has been uncovered at Alaska’s Holzman archaeological site. “The radiocarbon dates on this mammoth place it as one of the last surviving mammoths on the mainland,” said Kathryn Krasinski of Adelphi University. Krasinski and her team want to know if the tusk, which measures 55 inches long, was obtained by hunters, or if it was picked up by scavengers and brought to the site long after the animal died. If the mammoth was killed by hunters, this could indicate that the first Americans contributed to the extinction of the woolly mammoth some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. For more, go to “Leftover Mammoth.”

Were Macaws Farmed in the Prehistoric Southwest?

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Nature reports that archaeologist Randee Fladeboe of the University of Florida analyzed remains of 17 scarlet and military macaws unearthed at three prehistoric pueblos in New Mexico. It had been thought that most of the parrot bones and feathers uncovered across the American Southwest came from tropical birds imported from rainforests in Central and South America. But new research suggests that the birds were farmed in the Southwest for their feathers. At Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, archaeologists have found what may be a 1,000-year-old aviary, complete with a 10-inch-thick layer of droppings. And Fadeboe found small bumps on the upper surfaces of the wing bones of 15 of the birds in the study. Pulling out flight feathers, which are rooted in the bone, could have caused bleeding and infection that, over time, would have left multiple marks. She also noted that one macaw had recovered from two broken wings and had signs of malnutrition and illness, as well as marks on its beak from attacks from other macaws. Its survival would have required special care and feeding by human keepers. “People were doing their utmost to keep them alive,” Fladeboe said. For more, go to “Early Parrots in the Southwest.”