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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, February 09

Prehistoric Stone Ax Returned to Egypt

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM—Ahram Online reports that scientists at Louvain University handed over a 35,000-year-old ax to the Egyptian Embassy in Brussels. The stone ax was discovered by an excavation team from Louvain University at the Nazlet Khater archaeological site in Upper Egypt. A skeleton from the site that had been in Belgium since 1980 was returned in 2015. Shaaban Abdel Gawad of Egypt’s Antiquities Repatriation Department has proposed that the skeleton and the ax be put on display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat. For more, go to “A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet.”

Update From Downtown St. Augustine

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA—First Coast News reports that excavations in downtown St. Augustine have uncovered additional human remains at a site thought to be the home of a sixteenth-century church. The remains were found beneath the floor of a building at King and Charlotte Streets that was damaged by Hurricane Matthew. According to city archaeologist Carl Halbirt, the bones could represent some of the city’s first European residents. The burials are in the Christian style, with the skulls to the east and the arms crossed over the body, and are thought to date to between 1572 and 1586. “We can actually start to look at small pieces of bone and tooth,” said biological anthropologist John Krigbaum of the University of Florida. “You can start to get access to diet. Are they eating a lot of fish, corn, wheat?” DNA may also be collected from the bone samples. “This would provide clues as to what is going on in St. Augustine in the sixteenth century,” Halbirt said. For more, go to “Letter from Florida: People of the White Earth.”

Pebbles May Have Linked Paleolithic Mourners to the Deceased

MONTRÉAL, CANADA—The International Business Times reports that a team of scientists from the Université de Montréal, Arizona State University, and the University of Genoa found marine pebbles in Italy’s Arene Candide Cave that hunter-gatherers may have used to apply ochre paste to the dead between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago. The remains of about 20 people have been found in the cave, which is located in a cliff overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The pebbles, found in pieces in the cave, are thought to have been collected on the shoreline, and then broken in half when the ritual painting was completed. The researchers attempted to reassemble the pebble fragments recovered during the excavation, but no matching halves were found, suggesting that half of a pebble was left with the dead, while the other half was carried away as a talisman or souvenir. Claudine Gravel-Miguel of Arizona State University said that the new evidence could push the earliest known case of the ritual breaking of objects back by 5,000 years. For more, go to “Paleo-Dentistry.”

Wednesday, February 08

More on Scotland’s Ardnamurchan Boat Burial

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, a team of scientists has analyzed the contents of a 1,000-year-old Viking warrior’s grave discovered in western Scotland in 2011. Isotope analysis of the warrior’s teeth revealed that he grew up in Scandinavia, while his grave goods are thought to have originated in Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland. The high-status weapons in the grave included a large ax head, a sword with a decorated hilt, a spear, and a shield whose boss has survived. Other artifacts related to daily life included a whetstone made from a type of rock found in Norway, and a copper-alloy ringed pin, which may have been used to fasten a burial cloak or shroud. Stones for the boat burial may have been obtained from a nearby Neolithic burial cairn. For more, go to “Hoards of the Vikings.”

Boat-Shaped Coffins Unearthed in China

CHENGDU, CHINA—Xinhua News Agency reports that a cluster of boat-shaped coffins has been discovered at a construction site in southwest China. The cemetery is thought to have been used some 2,200 years ago by people of the Shu culture who may have operated nearby salt wells. Archaeologists led by Gong Yangmin of the Chengdu Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute estimate that there are 60 coffins in the cemetery, laid out in four rows. Forty-seven of them have been excavated so far. Two of the burials were exceptionally well preserved: One contained 10 bamboo baskets filled with grain, and the tomb’s occupant wore a string of glass beads at the waist. “Glass beads like dragonfly eyes were exotic at the time,” said Gong. “They were probably imported via the Silk Road.” The coffins were carved from a durable wood known as nanmu, which comes from evergreen trees and was used to construct actual boats as well. More than 300 artifacts, made from pottery, bronze, iron, and bamboo, have also been recovered. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Twelfth Cave Discovered at Qumran

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Times of Israel reports that researchers from Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority have found a twelfth cave where Dead Sea Scrolls are thought to have been hidden more than 2,000 years ago. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent more than 900 Jewish historic and religious documents, including texts of the Hebrew Bible, and philosophical works by members of the community that lived at Qumran during the Second Temple period. Led by archaeologists Ahiad Ovadia and Oren Gutfeld, the team members recovered a scrap of parchment in a jar, at least seven broken containers like the ones found in other Dead Sea Scroll caves, a leather strap for binding scrolls, and a cloth for wrapping them. The excavators also found flint blades, arrowheads, a carnelian stamp seal, and pickaxes dated to the 1940s, when the cave is thought to have been plundered and the scrolls removed. Scholars will have to rethink what they know about how the scrolls were stored. “How can we know for sure that they only came from 11 caves?” Gutfeld said. “For sure there were 12 caves, and maybe more.” For another recent find in Israel, go to “Mask Metamorphosis.”

Tuesday, February 07

Soil Samples from the Amazon’s Ancient Earthworks Studied

EXETER, ENGLAND—Live Science reports that archaeologist Jenny Watling, now of the University of São Paulo, and her colleagues collected soil samples from two geoglyph sites in far western Brazil and analyzed them for charcoal, carbon isotopes, and phytoliths. The results of the investigation suggest that the forest had been dominated by bamboo until about 4,000 years ago, when humans are thought to have set fires to clear the vegetation. The fires are represented by layers of charcoal. At this point, palm trees, which grow quickly in cleared areas and provide food and building material, became more common. Palm trees remained plentiful for about 3,000 years, suggesting that humans were managing the land, until about 650 years ago, when other larger trees became more common. Watling explained that even the oldest of the hundreds of geoglyphs in the Amazon were probably built in a landscape that had already been shaped by human intervention. She added that although no evidence of settlements has been found near the earthworks, traces of maize and squash crops have been discovered, in addition to smashed pots uncovered near the entrances to some of the geoglyphs. She thinks that people might have gathered food at the sites and used them for rituals during harvest seasons. For more, go to “An Overlooked Inca Wonder.”

Angkor-Era Iron-Smelting Furnace Unearthed in Cambodia

PREAH VIHEAR PROVINCE, CAMBODIA—An international team of scientists has discovered an Angkor-era iron smelter, according to a report in Cambodia Daily. Mitch Hendrickson of the University of Illinois at Chicago said that the team uncovered some collapsed sidewalls and the base of a nearly 1,000-year-old furnace, which was set at an angle so that liquefied slag could flow out of it. “The way that we think they built them is that they constructed the furnaces out of clay: They smelt the iron and then, to extract the bloom, they had to break down the walls,” Hendrickson explained. Traces of at least six such furnaces have been found at the site, but Hendrickson and archaeologist Phon Kaseka of the Royal Academy of Cambodia expect that the site was used to produce iron for a long period of time, and probably holds the remains of many such small furnaces, which measured only about three feet by six feet. Iron was used to make weapons, tools, and reinforcement bars for Angkor’s many stone temples. For more, go to “Angkor Urban Sprawl.”

Pharaonic Period Wall-Painting Fragments Found in Egypt

HILDESHEIM, GERMANY—Ahram Online reports that a large building complex is being excavated in the ancient city of Pi-Ramesse, the capital of Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II, by a team of researchers from the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum. The expansion of the nearby village of Qantir is endangering the 3,000-year-old site, which, according to a magnetic survey conducted last year, measures more than 650 feet long by 500 feet wide. It is thought to have been a palace or a temple with several phases of construction. Children’s footprints were also found near the building, preserved in a mortar pit where smashed pieces of painted wall plaster had been dumped. “No motifs are recognizable so far, but we are certainly dealing with the remains of large-scale multi-colored wall paintings,” said mission director Henning Franzmeier. The team members will attempt to conserve and reconstruct the wall paintings. For more, go to “A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet.”

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