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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, July 18

Ancient Barley Was Highly Domesticated

SEELAND, GERMANY—A new genetic analysis of barley grains dating back 6,000 years finds that they were extremely similar to modern-day varieties, according to a report by BBC News. Barley was among the earliest farm crops, having been domesticated around 10,000 years ago when hunter-gatherers first began farming. Starting with wild plants, these early farmers tried to eliminate undesirable traits, similar to modern-day selective breeding. Finding intact ancient grains suitable for a genetic study is highly unusual. In this case, the grains were excavated from a cave in an ancient fortress near the Dead Sea in Israel, where they were preserved by extremely dry conditions. DNA analysis of the ancient barley found that the 6,000-year-old grains were surprisingly similar to present-day crops in the same area, suggesting that by the time they were grown, barley had already undergone extensive domestication. “These 6,000 year-old grains are time capsules, you have a genetic state that was frozen 6,000 years ago,” says Nils Stein of the IPK Plant Genetics institute in Germany. “This tells us barley 6,000 years ago was already a very advanced crop and clearly different from the wild barley.” For more, go to “The Neolithic Toolkit.”

Possible Traces of Lost Colony Found

ELIZABETH CITY, NORTH CAROLINA—Archaeologists have discovered a range of evidence suggesting that part of the sixteenth-century lost colony of Roanoke Island may have ended up at a location in present-day Bertie County, North Carolina. According to a report in The Virginian-Pilot, excavation of an 850-square-foot tract there has turned up artifacts including seals used to verify cloth quality, sixteenth-century nails, firing pans from guns of the time, tenterhooks used to stretch hides, fragments of pottery jars used for storing preserved fish, and bowl pieces similar to those found at Jamestown. Clay Swindell, an archaeologist at the Museum of the Albemarle, says the artifacts show that members of the lost colony could have lived there. The site of the excavation was marked with the symbol of a fort on a map that John White, the leader of the Roanoke colony, drew from 1585-86. White left the colony in 1587 to resupply, and when he returned three years later, he found the colony gone and the word “Croatoan” carved in a post and “CRO” carved into a tree. Later search efforts did not make it to the current excavation site, where the findings indicate the presence of early English settlers, but not a fort. “We have new clues,” Swindell said. “That’s all we can say, there are new clues.” For more on archaeology in this area, go to “Medicine on the High Seas.”

Canine Bones Found in South Dakota

  MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Archaeologists excavating at the ca. 1000 A.D. Mitchell village site in southeastern South Dakota have unearthed a number of canine bones, including those belonging to dogs, foxes, and wolves that are considerably bigger than anticipated. According to the Daily Republic, Max Planck Institute zooarchaeologist Angela Perri is leading the study of the remains, which is giving scholars an idea of what domesticated dog species were like before European breeds were introduced to the area. "It kind of gives us a more rounded out picture of how humans are interacting with other animals, with their environment, things like that," Perri says. "Mitchell's a great place to do it. It's kind of a unique environment on the Plains. We have a lot of information about dogs from other places like the southwest and the deep south, but in the plains, we don't really know about what's going on with dogs." For more on the archaeology of canines, go to “More than Man’s Best Friend.” 

More on Bronze Age-Wall in Poland

MASZKOWICE, POLAND—Archaeologists studying an unusual 3,500-year-old stone wall discovered at a Bronze Age settlement in southern Poland last year have found more evidence that points to the identity of the structure's builders, reports Science & Scholarship in Poland. Led by Jagiellonian University archaeologist Marcin S. Przybyla, the team believes at least some of the villagers came from the Mediterranean or Adriatic. "The closest similarities in architectural solutions can be found in the settlement situated on the peninsula of Istria in northern Croatia," says Przybyla. His team also found that while the wall protecting the settlement was built using foreign techniques, the twenty houses found inside the settlement are similar to those commonly found in the region. Constructed from ca. 1750-1690 B.C., the wall fell into disrepair after a century. Some signs of crude repair and reconstruction are apparent, but after 200 years, the site was abandoned. Further excavations this summer will focus on a possible bastion or stone gate. To read in-depth about excavations at a Bronze Age site in the Mediterranean, go to “The Minoans of Crete.”

Friday, July 15

Large Anglo-Saxon Building Unearthed in Scotland

EAST LOTHIAN, SCOTLAND—The East Lothian Courier reports that the foundations of a large Anglo-Saxon building dated to about 1,200 years ago have been found in a field in Aberlady, a stop on a Christian pilgrimage route located on Scotland’s eastern coast. Archaeologists from AOC Archaeology Group and a team of volunteers began looking for the remains of Anglo-Saxon timber halls after a large concentration of metal artifacts was discovered in the field. “It may have been monastic, or a feast hall or a royal site,” said Ian Malcolm of the Aberlady Conservation and History Society. “There have been other excavations but no evidence of a structure on this scale has been discovered.” The excavation also revealed a paved area with a pit that may have held the original eighth-century Northumbrian Cross. There may have also been a workshop area, where the team discovered pieces of bone, a carved antler, a ninth-century coin, and two bone combs. For more, go to "Anglo-Saxon Hoard - Staffordshire, England."

2,000-Year-Old Siberian Dog Burials Found

SALEKHARD, RUSSIA—Robert Losey of the University of Alberta has unearthed the remains of five dogs who had been buried in graves some 2,000 years ago on the edges of the Arctic site of Ust-Polui. The dog graves resemble the human burials at the site. The butchered remains of more than 110 dogs, however, were also found among the bones of animals that had been eaten, including birds and reindeer. Losey thinks some of the butchered dogs may have been offered as sacrifices or consumed as part of ritual activity. He told Live Science that “at one place in the site, the heads of 15 dogs were piled together, all with their brain cases broken open in the same manner.” Artifacts from the site include the remains of two sleds and a carved bone knife handle that could depict a sled dog in a harness. Dogs are also thought to have been used in hunting and herding. The dogs buried whole in graves may have shared close bonds with people living in the village. To read more about dogs in the archaeological record, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

New Thoughts on the First Farmers

MAINZ, GERMANY—It had been thought that the first farmers were a homogenous group living in the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago. But a new genetic study suggests that farming was invented by multiple distinct groups that separated from each other between 46,000 and 77,000 years ago. “They lived more or less in a similar area, but they stay highly isolated from each other,” Joachim Burger of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz said in an NPR report. Burger and an international team of scientists analyzed DNA obtained from four individuals who lived in the eastern Fertile Crescent, in the Zagros Mountains, which are located on the border between modern-day Iraq and Iran. They expected the Zagros genomes to resemble those of farmers who lived a couple of thousand years later in the western Fertile Crescent, near modern-day Turkey. The early farmers from Zagros, however, turn out to resemble people living today in South Asia, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan. This suggests that the Zagros farmers migrated to the east, and not to the west and into Europe. For more on early farmers, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Roman Mosaic Discovered in Cyprus

  LARNACA, CYPRUS—The AFP reports that a Roman-period mosaic thought to depict the 12 labors of Hercules has been discovered by sewerage workers in an area that was once part of the Roman city of Kition. So far, a section of the mosaic measuring 62 feet long and 23 feet wide has been uncovered. “The intention is to transfer it to a museum, to build a specific room [where it will be displayed]… because this is the best way to protect it,” said Transport Minister Marios Demetriades. For more on Roman-period mosaics, go to "A Villa under the Garden."

Thursday, July 14

Prehistoric Farming Network Detected in England

  SUSSEX, ENGLAND—Laser scanning has revealed evidence of a prehistoric farming collective in England’s South Downs National Park, according to a report from BBC News. The evidence was detected using lidar, in which a laser beam mounted on an airplane scans the ground and produces a 3-D model of features. Findings from the survey indicate that a field system already scheduled to be protected as a monument made up just a portion of a large area of prehistoric cultivation that extends into land that is now wooded. This suggests that a vast expanse was farmed by people living in the region before the Roman invasion, raising questions regarding who grew the crops, who ate the food they produced, and where they lived. "The scale is so large that it must have been managed, suggesting that this part of the country was being organized as a farming collective," said Trevor Beattie, chief executive of the South Downs National Park Authority. The survey also detected the route of a Roman road between Chichester and Brighton that had been long suspected. For more on archaeology in England, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”

Ancient Padlock Discovered in Japan

KASHIHARA, JAPAN—At the site of Asuka, Japan's earliest imperial palace, archaeologists have found a 1,300-year-old shackle for a padlock. The Asahi Shimbun reports that the artifact measures 9.5 centimeters in length, and that its surface is still laquered thanks to the favorable conditions in which it was found. The shackle was discovered intact in a layer of clay in an area where a canal once ran near an artificial pond that belonged to the palace gardens. Experts speculate that the padlock would have been used to secure a palace gate or a noble's chest. “Perhaps a bureaucrat of the time dropped it by mistake,” says Mie University archaeologist Akira Yamanaka. “I bet he was reprimanded for it.”  To read more about archaeology in Japan, go to "Khubilai Khan Fleet."

1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints Analyzed

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of 1.5-million-year-old footprints found in 2009 near the eastern shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya suggests that Homo erectus, a human ancestor, walked like modern humans, according to a report in Live Science. Previous findings have indicated that Homo erectus may have been the first human ancestor with body proportions similar to those of modern humans, including long legs suitable for walking or running on two feet. However, analysis of Homo erectus’ walking style has been hindered by a lack of fossil evidence. A team of researchers led by Kevin Hatala of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the George Washington University, compared eight of the best-preserved footprints with those left by modern people in the area who typically walk barefoot and found that they were “statistically indistinguishable,” suggesting that they had similar foot anatomy and mechanics. Based on body mass estimates, the researchers also determined the footprints were left by multiple adult males, suggesting some degree of cooperation. For more on analysis of ancient footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”

Bronze Age Village Excavated

  PETERBOROUGH, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that excavations at the Bronze Age settlement in Cambridgeshire dubbed Must Farm are now complete. A 3,000-year-old village built on a wooden platform over a river channel, the entire settlement collapsed into the water when the piles it stood on were destroyed by fire. The river silt preserved the site and its contents to a remarkable degree. Archaeologists discovered whole meals left in cooking pots, extremely well-preserved textiles, an oak wheel, and a complete wooden spear, among many other artifacts. "On other Bronze Age sites you’d have a row of post holes and you’d be delighted to find one pot shard," says Mark Knight, who led the excavation on behalf of Cambridge University’s Archaeological Unit. "Here we have looked through the window and then walked into the middle of their lives." Analysis and conservation of all the artifacts is expected to take several more years to complete. To read about another Bronze Age site, go to "The Wolf Rites of Winter."