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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, January 16

Exeter Cathedral Could Uncover Its Roman Baths

EXETER, ENGLAND—Exeter Cathedral has submitted a bid to England’s Heritage Lottery Fund to unearth a first-century Roman bath discovered under the cathedral green in 1971. Archaeologist Paul Bidwell told BBC News that the Exeter Baths were “one of the first two monumental masonry buildings built in Britain.” The site includes a large caldarium, or hot room; a tepidarium, or warm room; a furnace house; an exercise yard; and multiple service rooms. “The baths were of a continental design which shows a close connection between Exeter and the civilized culture of the wider Roman Empire. It is of international interest,” added Martin Pitts of the University of Exeter. The Anglo-Saxon minster was then built on the site, followed by Exeter Cathedral in 1050. The ruins would be showcased in an underground interpretation center, along with other historic items from the cathedral. For more on the culture of Roman Britain, see "Artifact: Eagle Sculpture."

Seventh-Century Moat Uncovered in Japan

ASUKA, JAPAN—Excavation work at a school at the Koyamada ruins in Nara Prefecture has uncovered the remnants of what may have been a moat at the first burial site of Emperor Jomei (593-641), according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. The moat had been lined with quartz diorite boulders on one of its sloping sides, flatter stones on its bottom surface, and special chlorite schist flagstones topped with flagstones known as “Haibara,” made of rhyolite, stacked in a staircase pattern on the other slope. The researchers estimate that the moat’s burial mound was square shaped, with each side measuring between 50 and 90 yards long. Jomei’s final gravesite, the Dannozuka burial mound in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, was constructed in the same design with the same materials. To read about a Roman artifact discovered in Japan see "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

Ireland’s Dairies Date Back 6,000 Years

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Ninety percent of the fats found in Neolithic cooking pots from Ireland came from dairy products, according to a new study conducted at the University of Bristol. “We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots. It looks to have been a very important food source,” said Jessica Smyth of the School of Chemistry. The remaining ten percent of the residues came from beef or mutton fat, or a mixture of milk and meat. “People can obviously cook meat in other ways than boiling it in pots, and there is plenty of evidence for cereal processing at this time, but the Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic,” she said. Early Irish farmers were likely to have had one or two imported animals to support their individual households. Those animals may have been cared for as part of a larger community herd. To read about another method of studying prehistoric dairy consumption, see "Dental Calculus Offers Evidence of Milk-Drinking."

Thursday, January 15

Burial Mound in Kazakhstan Yields Gold Artifacts

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN—The Kok Kainar burial mound has yielded three artifacts, according to a report in Tengrinews. The first is described as a figurine of a feline predator dating to the fourth century B.C. “It is made of two pressed embossed plates connected into a single sculptural figurine. It can be referred to as a ‘playing kitten’ for its pose,” reads a report by Almaty’s City Department of Culture. The second item is a golden plate decorated with strawberries that depicts “a bird of prey, its head turned to the left, with a large beak, and wings unfolded.” The third artifact is a bronze mirror with a handle dating to sometime between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. To read about a similar find, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Woman’s Death Attributed to 19th-Century Polar Bear Attack

GATINEAU, CANADA—Researchers have analyzed the skull of an Inuit woman whose remains were excavated in the 1950s and housed in the collections of the Canadian Museum of History. The woman’s remains, thought to date to the nineteenth century, were found partially exposed inside a tent ring on the outskirts of an isolated Sadlermiut settlement on Southhampton Island. She was probably brought to the tent after she was injured, and then covered with organic material, possibly a skin, after her death. It had been thought that the woman was killed by a gunshot wound because of the holes on either side of her cranium, but museum archaeologist Karen Ryan and her colleagues thought it more likely that the woman had been attacked by an animal. They created a 3-D image of the skull, and sent it to the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project at Idaho State University, where the technicians compared the wounds to the bites of different Arctic animals without actually handling the woman’s remains. An adult female polar bear made a good match. “What struck me was how it makes you think about how the attack played out. Something horrible happened to that woman. It’s personal,” Ryan told Nunatsiaq Online. The museum’s collection of Nunavut human remains are being studied before they are repatriated. To read more about the Sadlermiut, see "Artifact: A Shaman's Healing Object."

Forgotten Rifle Discovered in Great Basin National Park

BAKER, NEVADA—Last fall, the staff at Great Basin National Park found a 132-year-old Winchester rifle, “the gun that won the West,” leaning against a juniper tree in the backcountry. Nichole Andler, chief of interpretation at Great Basin, says that the rifle appears to have been exposed to sun, wind, snow, and rain for many years. Its wood stock has turned grey and has cracked, and the barrel is rusted. A Model 1873 repeating rifle, it bears a serial number that records its manufacture and shipping date in 1882, but the records do not indicate who purchased the rifle, which sold for an affordable $25 at the time. The cultural resource staff at Great Basin National Park is continuing to look for information in period newspapers and family histories for more information on the rifle. Conservators will treat the gun before it is put on display. To read more in-depth about archaeology and the American West, see "A New Look at the Donner Party."

China’s Oldest Bone Hand Ax

CHONGQING, CHINA—Science News reports that a hand ax crafted from a stegodon jaw bone fossil has been dated to 170,000 years ago. The jaw’s wide, thick piece of curved bone has an indentation on its inner surface that provided a good grip for digging up edible roots. According to paleontologist Guangbiao Wei of China Three Gorges Museum, who published the findings in Quaternary International, the rare ax was discovered in a cave in China, along with the bones of stegodons, a now-extinct, elephant-like creature, and other large animals. This is the oldest bone hand ax to have been found in East Asia. Stone axes dating to 800,000 years ago have been found in South China. To read about the recent discovery of a similar tool in France, see "Bone Tool Discovered at Neanderthal Site." 

Wednesday, January 14

How to Play an Ancient Greek Drinking Game

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Heather Sharpe of West Chester University of Pennsylvania took a replica 3-D-printed kylix, some diluted grape juice, and some students to try to play kottabos, an ancient Greek drinking game. She described her experience at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Ancient texts and images from works of art describe two variations of the game. In the first, the male drinkers attempted to toss their wine and knock down a disc balanced on a tall metal stand in the middle of the room from their couches. In the second variation, the players had to toss their wine dregs into small dishes floating in a larger bowl of water to get them to sink. The modern players soon realized that flinging the juice overhand, as if they were pitching a baseball, was more successful than attempting to throw the wine with a flick of the wrist, Frisbee style. The resulting mess was surprising, too. “By the end of our experiment we had diluted grape juice all over the floor. In a typical symposium setting, in an andron, you would have had couches arranged on almost all four sides of the room, and if you missed the target, you were likely to splatter your fellow symposiast across the way. You’d imagine that, by the end of the symposium, you’d be drenched in wine, and your fellow symposiasts would be drenched in wine, too,” Sharpe told Live Science. She commented that playing the game while drinking actual wine would be required to “get the full experiment.” To read about another experiment in recreating ancient Greek culture, see "Classists Reconstruct the Sound of Greek Music."

Late Medieval Settlement Found at Dunluce Castle

COUNTY ANTRIM, NORTHERN IRELAND—Scientists looking for traces of a seventeenth-century town near Dunluce Castle discovered a structure dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. “What we are now beginning to uncover are traces of earlier and extensive late medieval settlement activity which are equally as important as the remains of the seventeenth-century Dunluce Town,” Mark H. Durkan, the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland, told Culture 24. The structures were probably part of a small settlement just outside of the original castle gate, close to the cliffs on which the castle was built. “Very few fifteenth-century buildings, other than those built entirely from stone, have survived in Ulster and normally there would be few traces, if any, for archaeologists to investigate. We are extremely lucky to make this exciting discovery,” he said. To read in-depth about the excavation of an early medieval site in the region, see "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."

Bone Tool Discovered at Neanderthal Site in France

MONTREAL, CANADA—A bone tool from the Grotte du Bison at Arcy-sur-Cure in France is further evidence that Neanderthals had abilities usually attributed solely to modern humans, according to Luc Doyon of the University of Montreal. Made from the left femur of an adult reindeer, the tool is between 55,000 and 60,000 years old, and bears marks suggesting that it was used for butchering meat and fracturing bones, and as a scraper and sharpening tool. “The presence of this tool at a context where stone tools are abundant suggests an opportunistic choice of the bone fragment and its intentional modification into a tool by Neanderthals. It was long thought that before Homo sapiens, other species did not have the cognitive ability to produce this type of artifact. This discovery reduces the presumed gap between the two species and prevents us from saying that one was technically superior to the other,” Doyon said. To read more about our close cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Snaketown’s Pyrite Mirrors Linked to Mesoamerica

PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Emiliano Gallaga of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History has studied more than 50 mirrors made of pyrite that were unearthed at the Hohokam site known as Snaketown in the 1930s and 1960s. Such mirrors are usually associated with elite members of cultures from Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, Maya, and Aztecs. Thirty-six of the mirrors at Snaketown had been broken, burned, and buried with cremated human remains in 16 graves. Gallaga’s analysis showed that the mirrors were difficult and expensive to make. “According to our research, a single, small mirror could need 900 to 1,300 hours, or 110 to 160 days, for a single craftsperson to do,” he told Western Digs. The techniques used to make the mirrors suggest that they were made in Mesoamerica, and there are no deposits of pyrite known to have been used by the Hohokam. Radiocarbon dates from the burials indicate that they were made between 650 and 950 A.D. “We think that the sedentary communities such as the Hohokam are getting prestige items such as the pyrite mirrors from a long distance, but we think not directly. We think that the nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups of northwest Mexico and the American Southwest are the ones who are transporting this material from the south to the north, and shell, turquoise, and other items from the north to the south, probably as far as the borders of Mesoamerica, where [long-distance traders known as] pochtecas would carry on the trade inland,” he explained. To read about another culture in the ancient Southwest, see "On the Trail of the Mimbres."