Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, May 11

Museum Returns Statue to Cambodia

CLEVELAND, OHIO—The Cleveland Museum of Art has returned a tenth-century statue of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, to Cambodia. The 800-pound sandstone sculpture was purchased in good faith by the museum in 1982, but officials recently learned that the sculpture’s base matched a pedestal at the east gate of the Prasat Chen Temple at Cambodia’s Koh Ker archaeological site. The statue was probably looted from the temple during the Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war. Excavations at the site uncovered the statue’s missing earring and other fragments. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Museum of Cambodia have now entered an agreement to facilitate joint projects. “I’m very optimistic that the conversations we have begun will result in cooperation of various kinds, and we are continuing to explore those possibilities,” William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, told The Plain Dealer. “Our research revealed a very real likelihood that it was removed from a site enormously important to the kingdom of Cambodia during a terrible time and its return was completely consistent with the highest legal and fiduciary standards,” he said. To read in-depth about archaeology in Cambodia, see "A Storied Landscape."

New Thoughts on Egypt’s Animal Mummies

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND— Estimates suggest that the ancient Egyptians made as many as 70 million animal mummies. A team of Egyptologists and radiographers from the University of Manchester and the Manchester Museum has examined some 800 hundred animal mummies with medical imaging technology and found that as many as one-third of them are empty. It had been thought that empty animal mummies were fakes. “But I think as time has gone on it’s become clear from the sheer volume we’re looking at that perhaps there is more to it,” team leader Egyptologist Lidija McKnight told The Washington Post. Most animal mummies were made as votive offerings. “You’d get one of these mummies and you’d ask it to take a message on your behalf to the gods and then wait for the gods to do something in return. That’s kind of their place in the religious belief system of ancient Egypt, and that’s why we think there were so many of them. It was almost sort of an industry that sprang up at the time and continued for more than 1,000 years,” she said. So the “empty” mummies may have been filled with symbolic items or served another purpose. “We shouldn’t view animal mummification through our modern, subjective standpoint of fakery and everything being some kind of con. There was probably much more to it than that, and there was probably much more innocent explanation for what was going on. The materials that they were using were just as important as the animals themselves,” she said. To read in-depth about animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."

Alaska Site Yields 12,300-Year-Old Pendants

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—At the Mead Site in central Alaska, researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, have unearthed small bone artifacts that could be the oldest artwork in northern North America. The first object in question from the site was found within the outline of what may have been a hide-covered structure 12,300 years ago. “We think it might be a pendant, an ornament, maybe worn near the face,” team leader Ben Potter told News Miner. A pair of pendants, both with broken holes at the tapered end, was also recovered. The site is thought to have been a cliff-side hunting camp, but no weapon fragments have been found so far. The team has found other pieces of worked bone, however, and the jawbone of a brown bear that is missing a canine tooth. Perhaps the tooth was made into jewelry. “You can imagine the association with strength and hunting skill,” Potter said. To read in-depth about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."

Stone Circle Discovered in Southern England

DEVON, ENGLAND—A stone circle with a diameter of 112 feet has been found on moorland in southwestern England. The first stone circle to have been discovered on Dartmoor for more than 100 years, it is the second largest on the moor and sits more than 1,700 feet above sea level. Scientists were able to obtain radiocarbon dates from soil samples beneath two of the circle’s 30 fallen stones. “These are the first radiocarbon determinations from a Dartmoor stone circle. The dates have produced very similar results and calibrate to the end of the third millennium B.C. (4,000 years ago). This indicates the date by which the stones had fallen,” Jane Marchand, senior archaeologist at Dartmoor National Park, told The Guardian. Preliminary investigations have also revealed a wide, linear ditch running just outside the eastern side of the circle. To read in-depth about the discovery of similar stone monuments off the coast of Scotland, see "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Friday, May 08

New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel

GEDERA, ISRAEL—A statue that may represent a fertility goddess and a figurine of a full-figured woman were unearthed during a rescue dig in south-central Israel. The statues, estimated to be 7,000 years old, are similar to figures from the Yarmukian culture that are usually found in northern Israel. The culture in southern Israel at this time had been labeled the Jericho 9 culture. “I think that in the end this is one culture with difference in the way pottery is made. It seems they had a single system of beliefs,” Edwin van den Brink of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Haaretz. He and Yitzhak Mermelstein are in charge of the excavation. “The question is whether the figurines represent a single ritual world in which there is an image with a bountiful chest, wide hips and maybe pregnancy. The most important question is whether the figures were made in the south or brought from the north,” Marmelstein added. Chemical tests of the clay used to make the figurines could provide the answer to that question. To read more about the Neolithic in Israel, see "8,000-Year-Old Cult Sites Surveyed in Negev Desert."

Red Blood Cells Found in Ötzi the Iceman

BOLZANO, ITALY—Phys.org reports that a team of researchers from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman used a nano-sized probe to search the cuts on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, who died some 5,300 years ago in the Alps, for red blood cells. As it moved, the probe captured 3-D images of doughnut-shaped cells. These cells were confirmed to be red blood cells with a laser that tested their molecular composition. Raman spectroscopy was then used to detect traces of fibrin, a clotting agent made by the body immediately after an injury occurs. The team of researchers, including Marek Janko, Robert W. Stark, and Albert Zink, suggests in the open-access Journal of the Royal Society that Ötzi died shortly after he received these wounds, since fibrin is quickly absorbed by the body as other agents take over healing. To read about Ötzi's tattoos, click here. 

Controlled Burn Reveals Site on the Northern Plains

HI-LINE DISTRICT, MONTANA—An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was used by Bureau of Land Management rangers to photograph the Henry Smith archaeological site in Montana’s Hi-Line District, following a controlled burn of some 320 acres of land in the area. “This was the first use of a (UAS) by the BLM to obtain imagery and data in relation to cultural resources in the Northern Plains,” Josh Chase, Hi-Line District archaeologist, said in a statement reported in The Billings Gazette. The removal of vegetation from the site allowed scientists to get a clear view of Avonlea-period complex (A.D. 770-1040), which includes anthropomorphic and zoomorphic stone effigies, stone cairns, drive lines, and stone circles. Avonlea-period hunters may have used the structures in rituals related to bison hunting and butchering. “The project will allow BLM to better study, document and manage this unique location,” Chase said. Temperature sensors were placed in mock cultural sites to measure the maximum temperature of the grass-fueled fire, and to study its effects bone and stone remains. This will help scientists understand how fire interacts with cultural resources. To read in-depth about prehistoric bison hunting in Montana, see "The Buffalo Chasers."

Pollen Suggests Spain’s Red Lady Had Been Buried With Flowers

VIZCAYA, SPAIN—Plant pollen found in the Paleolithic tomb of Spain’s Red Lady suggests that she had been buried with flowers. The tomb, discovered in El Mirón Cave in 2010, contained the 18,700-year-old remains of a woman aged between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death. Her bones, reddish in color from ochre, had been placed between the wall of the cave and an engraved block that had come away from the roof. Ochre was also found in the sediments around the remains. The pollen analysis, conducted by Maria José Iriarte and Alvaro Arrizabalaga of The UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country, and Gloria Cuenca of the University of Zaragoza, revealed a high concentration of plants from the goosefoot family that were not present at this time in other parts of the cave. “They put whole flowers on the tomb, but it has not been possible to say whether the aim of placing plants was to do with a ritual offering for the dead person, or whether it was for a simpler purpose like, for example, to ward off the bad smells associated with the burial,” Iriarte said in a press release. To read about a spectacular piece of Paleolithic art, see "A New Life for Lion Man."

Thursday, May 07

19th-Century Schooner Unearthed at Toronto’s Historic Waterfront

TORONTO, CANADA—Parts of an early nineteenth-century schooner were discovered during a construction project near Toronto’s old Lake Ontario shoreline. Archaeologists from ASI, an archaeological and cultural heritage firm, were looking for the remains of the Queens Wharf and other harbor features when they found the ship’s keel, the lowermost portions of the stern and bow, and a limited section of the bottom of the hull on the port side. “Based on what we have seen so far, this seems to be a vestige of one of the earliest vessels found in Toronto,” ASI senior archaeologist David Robertson said in a press release. “We plan to undertake an extensive study to find out everything we can about the vessel. At this time, however, we’re not confident it will be possible to preserve the remains.” The shipwreck will be recorded in detail with 3-D scanning technologies, however. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks." 

Stone Bracelet May Have Been Made by Denisovans

NOVOSIBIRSK, SIBERIA—A stone bracelet unearthed in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 2008 is being called the oldest-known jewelry of its kind. Anatoly Derevyanko, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and the research team believe that the cave’s Denisovan layers were uncontaminated by human activity from a later period. The soil around the two fragments of the jewelry piece was dated with oxygen isotopic analysis to 40,000 years ago. “In the same layer, where we found a Denisovan bone, were found interesting things; until then it was believed these were the hallmark of the emergence of Homo sapiens. First of all, there were symbolic items, such as jewelry, including the stone bracelet as well as a ring, carved out of marble,” Derevyanko told The Siberian Times. Details of the ring have not been released, but the bracelet, fashioned from imported chlorite, is fragile and thought to have been worn only on special occasions by an elite woman or child. “The ancient master was skilled in techniques previously considered not characteristic for the Palaeolithic era, such as easel speed drilling, boring tool type rasp, grinding and polishing with a leather and skins of varying degrees of tanning,” Derevyanko said. Wear near a hole drilled on the outer surface of the bracelet suggests that it may have held a leather strap attached to a heavy charm. This wear also suggests that the bracelet was worn on the right wrist. “The bracelet is stunning—in bright sunlight it reflects the sun’s rays, at night by the fire it casts a deep shade of green,” he said. To read more about our recently discovered relatives, see "Denisovan DNA."

Lost Cloister Discovered in Iceland

ÁLFTAVER, ICELAND—Icelandic and British archaeologists employing geosensing techniques have detected the remains of a large building that may be Iceland’s lost Þykkvabær cloister, which housed Augustinian monks from 1168 to 1550. “I think we’ve just hit the jackpot, because I think we’ve discovered the remains of Þykkvabæjarklaustur. It came as a complete surprise, you can say that much. The remains are not on the site it was assumed the cloisters stood,” Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir told Stöð 2 television and reported in The Iceland Review. It had been thought that the cloister would be found near the present-day Þykkvabæjarkirkja church, where researchers have been looking for it. “It is very big compared to the buildings of the time—as it is from the Middle Ages—and the footprint is around 1,500 square meters.” He added that it is possible that the building was the cloister’s cow shed. To read more about life in medieval Iceland, see "Surviving the Little Ice Age."