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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, July 17

The 5,000 Years of History Discovered Beneath I-95

  PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—Construction work on Interstate 95 in the Kensington-Fishtown and Port Richmond neighborhoods led to the discovery of artifacts spanning 5,000 years of Philadelphia’s history. “The people in these areas are not often recorded in historic documents,” archaeologist Douglas Mooney told NBC Philadelphia. Prehistoric tools, points, pots, and pipes were found along the Delaware River, along with houses and artifacts from European colonists. This area is also known for shipbuilding, fishing, and glassware industries along the river. Excavators recovered snapping turtle skulls, glass objects, and fishing supplies. “Center City has been the focus of history. The peripheral parts have not been given equal treatment until now,” Mooney added.  

Circular Earthworks Found in Austria

    RECHNITZ, AUSTRIA—Aerial photographs have led archaeologists in eastern Austria to concentric circular trenches dating to the Neolithic period. The trenches were surrounded by wooden poles, and defensive walls with multiple entrances were found inside the approximately 12-foot-deep trenches. “Such circular trenches are always positioned on a gentle slope, in order to give a clear view of the sky for the observation of the heavenly bodies,” archaeologist Franz Sauer told The Local. The circular earthworks may have been used as a calendar and a ritual space.  

Where Was the First Free Black Community in the U.S.?

  EASTON, MARYLAND—Mark Leone of the University of Maryland, College Park, is leading a team of students in the excavation of The Hill neighborhood in Easton. They are looking for evidence that could prove it was the country’s first free African-American community, and not the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, which dates to 1812. The team is currently excavating a building where three free non-white residents lived, according to the 1800 census. “We also know that by around 1790 there were a few free African Americans who were actually purchasing property in this neighborhood. And so we’re excavating here, one, to figure out what their lives were like and also to better understand the community more broadly in order to help support the claim that this is the oldest free African-American community in the United States,” Stefan Woehlke told Delmarva Now. Those first 400 residents may have been freed by Methodists and Quakers who lived in the area in the eighteenth century.   

Dental Plaque Hints at Prehistoric Plant Knowledge

  YORK, ENGLAND—Samples of dental calculus obtained from 7,000-year-old skeletons at Al Khiday, a prehistoric site on the White Nile in Central Sudan, have been analyzed by an international team of scientists. Chemical compounds and microfossils in the calcified dental plaque suggest that purple nut sedge (Cyperus rotundus) was an important part of the diet. It is a good source of carbohydrates and it inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, a bacterium that contributes to tooth decay. The researchers did observe a low level of dental cavities in the population. “We also discovered that these people ate several other plants and we found traces of smoke, evidence for cooking, and for chewing plant fibers to prepare raw materials. These small biographical details add to the growing evidence that prehistoric people had a detailed understanding of plants long before the development of agriculture,” Karen Hardy of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona told Science Daily. The people of Al Khiday continued to eat the beneficial purple nut sedge after agricultural plants had been introduced to their diets.   

Wednesday, July 16

Roman Settlement Unearthed in Devon, England

DEVON, ENGLAND—Archaeologists and students from the University of Exeter are excavating a Romano-British settlement in Ipplepen. They have unearthed a rutted road with repairs to its surface; Roman coins; fine, imported Roman pottery and local pottery made in the Roman style; and a Roman hair pin, brooch, and bracelet. “Roman women had some very elaborate hairstyles which changed through time like our fashions do today. Hairpins were used to hold complex hairstyles like buns and plaits together and suggests that Devon women may have been adopting fashions from Rome,” Danielle Wootton of the Portable Antiquities Scheme told the Exeter Express and Echo. The team also found green and blue glass beads, and two amber beads that were probably imported from the Baltic coast. “During the Roman period amber was thought to have magical, protective and healing properties. These very personal items worn by the women that lived on this site centuries ago have enabled us to get a glimpse into the lives of people living everyday lives on the edges of the Roman Empire,” she added. 

Original Church Found at England’s Rufford Abbey

  NOTTINGHAMSHIRE, ENGLAND—Traces of a medieval church thought to have been destroyed during the Reformation were discovered at Rufford Country Park during an excavation at Rufford Abbey. “Uncovering the remains of the original church is momentous,” Emily Gillott, Nottinghamshire County Council’s community archaeologist, told BBC News. A piece of Tudor pottery and two teeth, thought to belong to a monk who had been buried there, have been found at the site of the church, which was constructed in 1160.   

Wall Painting Discovered in Giza Tomb

MOSCOW, RUSSIA—A painting has been discovered on the walls of the tomb of Perseneb, a priest and steward who had been buried to the east of the Great Pyramid of Giza during the fifth dynasty, sometime between 2450 and 2350 B.C. “Known since the nineteenth century, the [tomb] could hardly present any new principal features. Therefore, it was a real surprise to discover an Old Kingdom painting on the eastern wall of the central room,” Maksim Lebedev of the Russian State University for the Humanities told Live Science. The painting had been covered with soot and dirt, and much of it has been damaged. Yet “none of the scenes has been lost completely. The remaining traces allow [for the] reconstruction [of] the whole composition,” he said. The images reflect the deceased’s high status, and depict boats sailing on the Nile River, agricultural scenes, and a man hunting marsh birds. There’s also an image thought to represent Perseneb with his wife and his dog.

Tuesday, July 15

New Technique Diagnoses Historic Disease

  COVENTRY, ENGLAND—Microbial genomist Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School and his colleagues used “shotgun metagenomics” to sample all of the DNA present in the bony nodules on a 700-year-old skeleton unearthed in Sardinia. They thought that the man had suffered from tuberculosis, but the results showed the DNA signature of Brucella melitensis, a microbe caught from working with livestock or consuming contaminated milk or cheese. The disease, known as brucellosis, causes chronic fatigue and recurring fevers, and has been diagnosed in other ancient skeletons, including a possible case in the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus. Pallen’s team is now using “shotgun metagenomics” to test other historic tissue samples. “We’re cranking through all of these samples, and we’re hopeful that we’re going to find new things,” he told Live Science.  

Tonga Served as a Pacific Trade Hub

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—According to Phys.org, Geoffrey Clark of Australian National University and his colleagues think that Tonga served as a trade hub and the seat of a maritime empire for people across Polynesia in the first half of the second century A.D. The team analyzed more than 500 stone artifacts found in Tongan political centers, and traced the types of rocks to different Central Pacific islands. They found that two-thirds of the stone tools had been imported from Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti, some 2,500 miles away from Tonga. Yet very few stone tools in Samoa were imports. Valuable goods and ideas could have been shared by people throughout Polynesia in areas formed by Tongan rulers’ centralizing authority.

Gomphotheres Added to Clovis Menu

  TUCSON, ARIZONA—Clovis projectile points and cutting tools have been found mingled with the bones of two juvenile gomphotheres, elephant-like relatives of mastadons and mammoths, in northwestern Mexico. Gomphotheres are known to have been hunted in Central and South America, but this is the first time such evidence has been found in North America. “At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison. We finally found the mandible, and that’s what told the tale,” Vance Holliday of the University of Arizona told Science Daily. The bones have been dated to 13,400 years ago, making them the last known gomphotheres in North America.   

Pathogen Identified in Ötzi’s Bone Sample

BOLZANO, ITALY—A bone sample taken from the natural mummy known as Ötzi, found in a melting glacier on the Austrian-Italian border by hikers 1991, was used to decode his genome. Now a team of experts from the European Academy of Bolzano (EURAC) and the University of Vienna analyzed the non-human DNA in the sample and identified traces of Treponema denticola, a pathogen involved in the development of periodontal disease. And, in fact, the Iceman was diagnosed with periodontitis with a computer tomography scan last year. “What is new is that we did not carry out a directed DNA analysis but rather investigated the whole spectrum of DNA to better understand which organisms are in this sample,” Frank Maixner of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman told Science Daily. The team of scientists also detected Clostridia-like bacteria in the bone sample that are thought to be in a dormant state. If they were to grow, they could cause the 5,300-year-old mummy’s tissues to degrade. Continued preservation of the Iceman will require additional micro-biological monitoring.