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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, June 20

Genomes Suggest Two Groups of First Farmers in Middle East

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Population geneticists Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich of Harvard Medical School suggest that farming was developed by two different populations in the Middle East. They obtained genetic material, which is poorly preserved in hot climates, from the tiny ear bones of 44 people who lived in the Middle East between 3,500 and 14,000 years ago. Nature reports the researchers found that the Neolithic farmers who lived across the Zagros Mountains of western Iran were more closely related to hunter-gatherers in the region than they were to farmers in the southern Levant. “There has been a school of thought arguing that everything happens first in the southern Levant and everyone learns how to be farmers in from this initial dispersal,” said Roger Matthews of the University of Reading, who is also co-director of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project. “But the archaeological evidence shows very strong local traditions that are clearly not in communication with each other, persisting for centuries if not millennia.” These two groups of farmers may have eventually mixed while looking for tool-making materials in eastern Turkey. For more, go to "Europe's First Farmers."

Medicine Jar Fragments Found on Roanoke Island

MANTEO, NORTH CAROLINA—Two small fragments of pottery discovered near the shores of Roanoke Island could be linked to the colonization attempts sponsored by English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. Eric Deetz, an archaeologist with the First Colony Foundation, thinks the blue, white, and brown fragments were part of a jar that held ointment or medicine, and may have belonged to Thomas Harriot or another member of the lost colony. Harriot traveled to North Carolina in 1585, on the second of three trips sponsored by Raleigh, and he is known to have studied the local plants and animals. The pottery was found near the site where the remains of a barrel well—a well lined with barrels whose tops and bottoms have been removed—were uncovered in the 1980s. “That pottery had something to do with the Elizabethan presence on that island,” Deetz said in a report by The Virginian-Pilot. National Park Service cultural resource manager Jami Lanier adds that additional artifacts may be found in the area. The excavation of the site is a priority because of the danger of it eroding away. To read about another recent discovery in Virginia, go to "Ship Underground."

Possible Buddhist Monastery Uncovered in India

GUJARAT, INDIA—The Indian Express reports that structures resembling a Buddhist monastery have been unearthed in the ancient city of Vadnagar in western India. In the seventh century A.D., Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang wrote about ten Buddhist monasteries in India, including in the city of Vadnagar. “We have unearthed six or seven monastic cells but the entire planning can only be ascertained after extended excavation,” said archaeologist Madhulika Samanta of the Archaeological Survey of India. She thinks the entire complex was square-shaped and had an entrance and a verandah on its northern side. Traces of a water management system and metallurgical workshops were also found. More than 4,000 artifacts, including religious sculptures, pottery, and silver and copper coins, have been recovered. The earliest building phase of the complex could date back to the first century A.D. Modern structures built by locals on the site have prevented further research. For more, go to "Letter from India: Living Heritage at Risk."

Large Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Excavated

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A research team from Wessex Archaeology has excavated a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in the 1970s near the village of Collingbourne Ducis on England’s Salisbury Plain. The 1,600-year-old burials include four cremation graves and more than 80 inhumation graves placed on what had been a wooded hilltop. The team found traces of infections such as tuberculosis and leprosy among the bones. Some of the graves contained shield bosses, knives, and spearheads, and are thought to have belonged to warriors. “All of the burials seem to have an iron knife. We’re not too sure if it’s symbolic of reaching a particular grave, but some of the infant or small child burials have got them as well,” Neil Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology said in a Culture 24 report. Fitzpatrick added that most of the graves had grave goods, but individuals who had been buried in a crouched position tended to have been buried with only an iron knife. Many of the women had been buried with reused Roman beads or other jewelry. The team also found traces of funerary structures on both sides of the cemetery. To read about another recent discovery in the same area, go to "A Villa under the Garden."

Friday, June 17

Stone Fragment May Be Piece of Mycenaean Throne

ATHENS, GREECE—Archaeologist Christofilis Maggidis of Dickinson College claims that a piece of worked limestone unearthed at an archaeological site in southern Greece two years ago could be a fragment of the throne of the rulers of Mycenae. The stone in question was recovered from a streambed under the remains of a hilltop Mycenaean palace that collapsed during an earthquake around 1200 B.C. The Greek Ministry of Culture agrees with a study suggesting that the artifact was part of a stone basin. Maggidis says, however, that the porous stone, which has not been found anywhere else in the palace, could not have held liquids, and was shaped for sitting. A similar type of stone was used in the citadel’s defensive walls, and in beehive tombs. “In our opinion, this is one of the most emblematic and significant finds from the Mycenaean era,” he said at a press conference reported by the Associated Press. For more, go to "The Minoans of Crete."

Archaeologists Sign Petition in Support of Utah Monument

SAN JUAN COUNTY, UTAH—Utah Public Radio reports that the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribal nations have proposed a 1.9 million acre national monument to protect the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah, where the Basketmaker Culture was discovered. More than 700 archaeologists have signed a letter from Friends of Cedar Mesa to President Obama in support of the proposal. The letter also expresses concern about looting and vandalism at sensitive archaeological sites in the area. Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, says the San Juan County area is home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, rock art panels, and burials. “Archaeologists have been advocating for the protection of these cultural resources for 113 years now,” he said. For more on archaeology in this area, go to "Archaeology, Off-Road Vehicles, and the BLM."

Ancient Technique Produces Highly Fertile Soil

SUSSEX, ENGLAND—An international team of researchers led by James Fairhead of the University of Sussex found that an ancient West African method of improving poor soils could help today’s farmers boost crop production in the age of climate change. UPI reports that for a period of at least 700 years, West African farmers enriched rain forest soils with ash, bone, and kitchen waste to produce what the team calls “African Dark Earths.” They detected 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon in the samples of African Dark Earths collected in Ghana and Liberia than in untreated soil. “Mimicking this ancient method has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people living in some of the most poverty- and hunger-stricken regions in Africa,” Fairhead said. For more on archaeology in West Africa, go to "The Nok of Nigeria."

Thursday, June 16

Nineteenth-Century Grave Looted in Indiana

HARRISON COUNTY, INDIANA—Archaeologists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources assisted Indiana conservation officers with the investigation of a looted grave in rural Indiana. The grave, located on private land, belonged to Nancy Brown, who died in 1881 at the age of 47. “We teamed up with our state archaeologist and went to the site and needless to say we found a pretty disturbing scene,” conservation officer Jim Schreck said in a report by Wave 3 News. He thinks that multiple people were involved in carrying tools to the remote site and exhuming the grave. Investigators are now looking for Brown’s living relatives with the help of the Harrison County Public Library Genealogy Department. For more on archaeology of nineteenth-century America, go to "Mr. Jefferson’s Laboratory."

Possible Homo Erectus Footprints Found in East Africa

ROME, ITALY—The Local, Italy, reports that archaeologists from Sapienza University have discovered fossilized footprints in Eritrea that may have been made by Homo erectus some 800,000 years ago. The individual may have been stalking a gazelle-like animal whose footprints were also preserved in the trackway. “Their age is yet to be confirmed with certainty, but footprints will reveal a lot about the evolution of man, because they provide vital information about our ancestors’ gait and locomotion,” said lead archaeologist Alfredo Coppa. The footprints are thought to have been made along the shores of a large lake, and were probably filled with water, then eventually dried out and buried. The remains of five or six Homo erectus individuals have also been found in the area. For more on ancient footprints, go to "Proof in the Prints."

Divers Survey Greece’s Antikythera Shipwreck

ATHENS, GREECE—Greek and American archaeologists recovered some 60 artifacts, including a bronze spear that is thought to have been part of a statue, four fragments of marble statues, and a gold ring, during a recent survey of the Antikythera shipwreck. Located off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, the first-century B.C. shipwreck was discovered by sponge divers in 1900. The Associated Press reports that the team did not recover any additional pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism, but they will continue to look for pieces of the device, whose bronze gears and plates are thought to have been used to track the position of the sun, the phases of the moon, the positions of the planets, and the timing of eclipses. For more, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb."