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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 13

Murals Depict Wardrobe Choices During China's Liao Dynasty

DATONG CITY, CHINA—Live Science reports that a second circular tomb decorated with vivid murals has been excavated by a team from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology. The entrance to the tomb, which is believed to date to the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125) and was discovered in 2007, had been sealed with bricks, but the archaeologists were able to enter it through a hole in the arch-shaped roof. Once inside, they found ceramics and an urn containing cremated human remains thought to belong to a husband and wife. The walls of the tomb had been decorated with murals depicting servants, cranes, and clothing hanging on stands. The clothing had been painted in shades of blue, beige, yellow, and pink. One of the garments features a diamond-grid pattern outlined in green and yellow with a small red flower in each diamond. Plates holding accessories such as a headdress, bracelets, hairpins, and combs were shown on a rectangular table in front of the clothing rack. For more on archaeology in China, go to “Zinc Zone.”

Large Structure Discovered in Japan's Ancient Capital

NARA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that holes for nine pillars of a large structure dating to the late-seventh century have been unearthed at the “square of zelkova trees,” in the ancient capital of Asuka. The imperial palace stood to the south of square, which was known as the place where the Empress Saimei entertained guests from remote provinces, and her son, Emperor Tenji, cemented his reign by removing the competing Soga clan from power. The holes for the newly discovered building measure nearly three feet deep and four feet in diameter, and suggest that the building measured 36 feet long by 20 feet wide. “The square was almost certainly a multipurpose space,” explained Kanekatsu Inokuma of Kyoto Tachibana University. “The building may have been the venue of the banquets or some sort of lodging.” Masashi Kinoshita of Tokyo Gakugei University thinks the building may have served as a warehouse for the palace. To read more about Japan, go to “Dogu Figurine.”

Woman Buried in Viking Grave in Demark Was Born in Norway

RANDERS, DENMARK—According to a report in The Copenhagen Post, archaeologist Ernst Stidsing of East Jutland Museum says that a woman buried in a Viking grave in Randers, Denmark, was born in southern Norway. He arrived at this conclusion based on the style of her bronze and silver jewelry, and the results of strontium isotope analysis of her teeth. He added that the high-status woman may have traveled to Denmark to marry. To read about a young woman who traveled to Denmark more than 3,000 years ago, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Algiers Metro Station Dig Yields Trove of Artifacts

ALGIERS, ALGERIA—The AFP reports that excavation for a metro station in the Algerian capital has uncovered artifacts spanning a period of 2,000 years, including coins, weapons, a fifth-century public building from the ancient Roman port town of Icosium paved with mosaics, and a seventh-century Byzantine necropolis. The excavation, begun in 2009, has also revealed the remains of the Ottoman-era Es Sayida mosque, which was demolished in 1831 by the French colonial government. Revisions to the plans for the Martyrs Square metro station, set to open later this year, will incorporate an archaeological museum. To read about discoveries made during construction of a subway in Turkey, go to “The Price of a Warship.”

Friday, March 10

Ancient Roman Sarcophagus Identified at English Estate

OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—The New York Times reports that a large fragment of a 1,700-year-old Roman sarcophagus was discovered by a visitor to the gardens at Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage site dating to the eighteenth century. There are no records of how the sarcophagus, which is carved with images of Dionysus and wine flowing from crushed grapes, arrived on the estate. But it is known that it was used to collect water from a natural spring in the nineteenth century, and then in the early twentieth century, it was incorporated into a rock garden. A conservation team led by Nicholas Barnfield of Cliveden Conservation cut the bolts that held the marble fragment to a lead cistern and took it to their workshop, where they carefully cleaned the surface with water and wooden picks over a six-month period. “There are no inscriptions to indicate who it was for, but it was obviously someone of very high status,” Barnfield said. The sarcophagus is now on display inside Blenheim Palace. To read about another discovery in the area, go to “Alfred the Great’s Forgotten Ally.”

Archaeologists Race to Exhume Historic Remains in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that archaeologists and anthropologists have come from all over the East Coast to volunteer their time and skills to exhume as many as 300 burials discovered on a residential construction site within Philadelphia’s Old City. The graves had been part of the First Baptist Church burial ground, which was founded in 1707. When the cemetery closed in 1859, the graves were supposed to have been moved. The Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission say they do not have the jurisdiction to intervene in the project, but the developer has given the archaeologists time to salvage the burials. “These are our ancestors,” said Anna Dhody, head of the city’s Mütter Institute and a leader of the excavation. “This is our history. We can learn so much from these bones—about the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, the cholera epidemic of 1849.” The developer has also agreed to pay to have the remains reinterred at Mount Moriah cemetery, where they were supposed to have been transferred in the mid-nineteenth century. For more, go to “Letter from Philadelphia: Empire of Glass.”

10th-Century Tree-Lined Street Discovered in Japan

TOTTORI, JAPAN—According to a report in The Asahi Shimbun, the roots of 18 willow trees were unearthed along a 200-foot-long stretch of ancient road at the Aoyayokogi ruins, located on the island of Honshu. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the trees lived in the late tenth century, which corresponds with a wood strip marked “Tengyo junen,” or the tenth year of Tengyo (A.D. 947), that was also recovered. The trees may have been supported by 40 wooden stakes found at the site. “Boulevard willow trees are believed to have been planted in [the] ‘miyako’ (ancient capital),” said Toshihide Omi of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. “What a surprise to find them even in rural areas as well.” For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Thursday, March 09

New Kingdom Statues Unearthed in Cairo

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that two statues were discovered by an Egyptian-German excavation team at the site of the Ramses II temple in the Al-Matariya area of Cairo. Mahmoud Afifi, of Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, said the first statue is a limestone bust of King Seti II that measures about two and one-half feet tall. The second statue, which was found in pieces, was carved from quartzite and may have stood more than 25 feet tall. “Although there are no engravings that could identify such a statue, its existence at the entrance of King Ramses II’s temple suggests that it could belong to him,” Afifi said. Most of the temple’s colossal statues and obelisks are thought to have been taken to Alexandria and Europe in antiquity, while the blocks from the temple’s walls were reused during the Islamic period to construct buildings of Historic Cairo. For more, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Genetic Study Links Aboriginal People to Regions of Australia

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—According to a BBC News report, the first phase of the Aboriginal Heritage Project is a genetic study conducted by a team led by Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide. The study analyzed mitochondrial DNA obtained from 111 hair samples collected from Aboriginal people in the early twentieth century by anthropologists Norman Tindale of the University of Adelaide and Joseph Birdsell of Harvard University. Its results suggest that after a founding population from New Guinea arrived some 50,000 years ago, the first Australians traveled east and west around the coast and met in South Australia. “The amazing bit is that they don’t seem to move again once they’ve done that,” Cooper said, explaining that Aboriginal Australians appear to have stayed for a long period in distinct geographical regions, except for small movements into the interior of the desert. Cooper also noted that such an enduring connection to the land is unknown anywhere else in the world. The hair samples, and cultural, linguistic, and genealogical information collected by Tindale and Birdsell are held at the South Australian Museum. For more on archaeology of Australia, go to “Death by Boomerang.”

Nomadic Herders May Have Forged Silk Road Routes

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Science News reports that Michael Frachetti of Washington University and his team created a computer model of possible pathways traveled more than 4,000 years ago by nomadic herders between seasonal mountain pastures and lowland camps in Asia. Information for the model was collected using satellite analysis, geography, archaeology, and Geographic Information Systems. Frachetti suggests that some 2,000 years later, these routes had become Silk Road trade corridors through the mountains. Nomads may have shared their knowledge with lowland farmers, and they may have marked paths with standing stones or other landmarks. “Silk Road highland networks were formed by pastoralists interacting with other groups in a lengthy process that was not a construction project and involved no planning,” he explained. After 500 simulations of possible routes to the best areas of pastureland, Frachetti and his team shaped a cumulative route, which came within a mile or so of 192 of the 258 Silk Road archaeological sites discovered at high altitude. For more, go to “The Price of Tea in China.”

DNA From Neanderthal Dental Plaque Analyzed

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—Nature reports that scientists from the University of Adelaide and the University of Liverpool analyzed DNA obtained from the dental plaque of five Neanderthals whose remains were recovered in northern Spain’s El Sidrón Cave, and compared the results to a study of the plaque obtained from four Neanderthals buried in Belgium’s Spy Cave. The results suggest that while the Neanderthals from Spy Cave enjoyed rhinoceros and sheep meat, the Neanderthals living in Spain ate a vegetarian diet. One of the individuals, who suffered from a dental abscess, also carried an intestinal parasite. His plaque contained traces of poplar, which contains the active ingredient in aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mold. Neither of these substances were detected in the other plaque samples, which suggests he may have been treated with medicinal plants. The genome sequence of one of the types of ancient mouth bacteria in the samples suggests it was transferred to Neanderthals from modern humans. “If you’re swapping spit between species, there’s kissing going on, or at least food sharing, which would suggest that these interactions were much friendlier and more intimate than anybody ever possibly imagined,” said Laura Weyrich of the University of Adelaide. To read in-depth about the study of ancient dental plaque, go to “Worlds Within Us.”