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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, January 25

Hundreds of Skeletons Discovered Under English Parking Lot

GODALMING, ENGLAND—A total of 300 human skeletons have been excavated from a former parking lot in the English town of Godalming, according to Get Surrey. It is not yet clear what century the remains date to, and archaeologists have requested more time to analyze them along with a range of other findings, including animal bones, flint objects, and pottery fragments. The first skeletons were discovered at the site in March 2013 during a routine pre-construction survey. At that point, experts conjectured that the site was used as a burial ground between the ninth and thirteenth centuries in association with the nearby Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Once analysis of the finds is completed, the skeletons will be reburied at another nearby church. To read about a particularly notable discovery under an English parking lot, go to “Richard III’s Last Act.”

Who Did the Aztecs Sacrifice?

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Scholars have long assumed that the people the Aztecs sacrificed at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán were prisoners of war who were killed soon after being captured. But EFE reports that a new strontium isotope analysis of remains belonging to several sacrificed individuals who lived between 1469 and 1521 is challenging that view. The study, led by National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Allan Barrera, shows that some of the victims were foreigners who lived in the Valley of Mexico among the Aztecs for at least six years. It's possible the remains belong not to captured warriors, but prisoners of high rank who served the Aztec elite for some time before eventually being sacrificed. To read more about Aztec archaeology, go to “Under Mexico City.”

New Discoveries Reported at Peru’s El Paraiso

LIMA, PERU—A team of archaeologists from Peru’s Culture Ministry excavating at El Paraiso, the oldest known site in Lima, has discovered the head of a ceramic figure and the tomb of a woman. The presence of the ceramic fragment, which dates to around 4,000 years ago, is notable, says project director Joaquin Narvaez. “That a ceramic object should turn up among remains from the Late Preceramic Period shows us one of the earliest attempts by the first inhabitants of this complex to fire clay in order to harden it,” he told EFE. The team estimates that the woman was aged around 30 when she died around 3,500 years ago of blunt trauma to the head, according to Peru Reports. Based on the presence of knitting implements, seashells, and seafood residues in her tomb, they believe that she was a textile weaver and that her diet was largely made up of fish and seafood. To read more about archaeology in Peru, go to “Peru’s Mummy Bundles.”

Clues to the Great Plague of Marseille

MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Researchers have reconstructed the genome of the Yersinia pestis pathogen that caused the Great Plague of Marseille, which lasted from 1720 to 1722. According to a press release from Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, the team was able to isolate the pathogen's DNA from teeth excavated from mass burials dating to the time of the plague. To their surprise, the eighteenth-century plague was a form that is no longer circulating, and seems to descend directly from the Black Death, the disease that wiped out up to 50 percent of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. At this point the team has not pinpointed the geographical source of the Marseille plague, but they suspect the disease was lurking in Europe for several hundred years. “It’s a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet,” says Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the MPI in Jena. “Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range, and the reason for its disappearance.” To read about another plague outbreak in France, go to “A Parisian Plague.” 

Friday, January 22

Head and Body of Khmer Statue Reunited in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Negotiations between France’s Ministry of Culture and Cambodia’s Council of Ministers has resulted in the reunification of the head and body of a seventh-century Khmer statue. The head, now on permanent loan, was removed from the body of the statue at the Phnom Da temple while Cambodia was a French colony, more than 125 years ago. “This head was among the artifacts that were sent to France—with King Norodom’s authorization, to show the importance of Khmer art, and from 1889 on, it was exhibited at the Musée Guimet,” Pierre Baptiste, curator of the Southeast Asian collection at the Guimet Museum, told The Cambodia Daily. The body of the statue was discovered in pieces at the temple in the twentieth century. “It’s only recently that we were able to make a cast of the upper part of the statue in Phnom Penh and bring it to France to check whether our head actually matched that body,” he added. The completed statue of Harihara, the fusion of Vishnu and Shiva in the Hindu tradition, will be housed at Cambodia’s National Museum. To read more about Cambodian archaeology, go to "Storied Landscape."

2,500-Year-Old Footprints Discovered in Arizona

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Preparations for road construction near Tucson, Arizona, revealed the 2,500-year-old fields and footprints of farmers, children, and dogs. The field and prints were well preserved by a nearby creek that flooded its banks and covered them with a mica-rich sediment that formed a mineralized crust. Archaeologist Dan Arnit of Innovative Excavating was able to follow the movements of specific individuals around the field. One set shows where a large adult walked diagonally across the field, stopped to work on a berm or open a weir to let in water, and then returned across the field and over a ditch on a different path. Another farmer was probably being followed by a dog, whose paw print was found inside a foot print. The field still has depressions where the farmers had placed their plants. “So we’ve excavated a number of these planting depressions and will run samples for pollen and phytoliths to get a sense of what was being grown,” Jerome Hesse, project manager for SWCA Environmental Consultants, told Western Digs. “We’re doing everything we can to document the footprints, because they are smack-dab in the middle of the road,” added Suzanne Griset of SWCA. To read more about Southwest archaeology, go to "Who Were the Anasazi?"

Egypt’s Earliest Case of Scurvy Unearthed in Aswan

ASWAN, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the skeleton of a one-year-old child who suffered from scurvy has been unearthed at a pre-dynastic site in the area of Nag Al-Qarmila by the Aswan Kom Ombo Archaeological Project (AKAP), led by Maria Carmela Gatto of Yale University and Antonio Curci of Bologna University. The remains, which date to between 3800 and 3600 B.C., are thought to represent the oldest-known case of the disease. Bioarchaeologists Mindy Pitre of St. Lawrence University and Robert Stark of McMaster University observed the changes to the bones that mark the condition, but scientists have yet to determine the circumstances contributing to the lack of vitamin C that led to the child’s condition. To read more about recent Egyptological discoveries, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Thursday, January 21

Ancient Theater Discovered on Greek Island

LEFKADA, GREECE—Greece’s culture minister announced that sections of an ancient theater have been discovered on the Ionian island of Lefkada. According to the Greek Reporter, the possibility of a theater at the site was first noted by German archaeologist E. Kruger in the early twentieth century, but its presence has not been mentioned in any known ancient sources. The test excavations revealed rows of seats carved from rock, parts of the orchestra, and retaining walls for the stage and other parts of the theater. To read more about ancient sites in Greece, go to "The Acropolis of Athens."

Magical Folktales May Date to the Bronze Age

DURHAM, ENGLAND—Jamie Tehrani of Durham University and Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon conducted a statistical analysis of the relationship between languages and folktales in a search for our earliest stories. They chose 76 stories from a database of more than 2,000 types of folktales as possible candidates for estimating folktale ages. These stories were based upon beings or objects with supernatural powers, which is the largest group of folktales in the database. They then studied how the tales related to the family trees of Indo-European languages throughout Asia and Europe. “What these methods allow us to do is trace back really important dimensions of human culture…much further back than the physical evidence would allow us to do,” Tehrani explained to Science News. One tale in particular is thought to date back 6,000 years, to the Proto-Indo-European language, while four others were found to have a high probability of being associated with it. “’The Smith and the Devil’ is the one we feel absolutely confident as being a Proto-Indo-European tale,” Tehrani said. In this story, a blacksmith makes a deal with an evil being for the power to weld any materials together. To read more about Proto-Indo-European, go to "Wolf Rites of Winter." 

German Submarine Discovered Off England’s Eastern Coast

EAST ANGLIA, ENGLAND—Windfarm development companies ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) and Vattenfall discovered more than 60 shipwrecks, including a World War I-era German submarine, in the North Sea while scanning the seabed. The uncharted vessel has been missing in action since January 13, 1915. “U-31 was the first of 11 Type U-31 submarines built between 1912 and 1915. The class were considered very good high sea boats with good surface steering; eight were sunk during operations while three surrendered and were scrapped after the war. Of those lost during operations, the whereabouts and fate of two, including U-31, was unknown,” marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley of Historic England said in a press release. The submarine is well preserved and will be protected from any windfarm development. To read more about the archaeology of World War I, go to "Letter From Turkey."

Megalithic Tomb Sheds Light on Neolithic Life

BASEL, SWITZERLAND—Anthropologists from the University of Basel and archaeologists from the University of Valladolid have completed their examination of a 6,000-year-old mound located near Burgos, Spain. The burial chamber, originally made of wood, was later covered with a stone mound. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the tomb, which contained the remains of at least 47 people, was used over a period of three to four generations. About half of the remains were of children and adolescents, while the other half were of adults. The adult remains showed signs of degenerative diseases of the spine and joints, healed fractures, head injuries, and dental problems. Genetic studies indicate that bodies that had been buried close to each other were closely related. Chemical analysis suggests that all but three of the individuals had grown up in the area, and that they shared a farmer’s diet of wheat, barley, sheep, goat, and pig. “This is the first study that presents a detailed picture of how Neolithic people were connected in life and death,” Kurt W. Alt of the University of Basel said in a press release. To read more, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."