Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, November 05

Ancient Snail Shells Yield Record of Climate Change

CINCINNATI, OHIO—Snail shells collected from an archaeological site in northeast Morocco have been analyzed to determine the climate conditions in the region between 10,800 and 6,700 years ago by Yurena Yanes of the University of Cincinnati, Rainer Hutterer of the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum, and Jorg Linstadter from the University of Cologne. “Because the isotopes of snail shells are only influenced by temperature and water conditions and not by humans, we have natural archives at the time of prehistoric occupation,” Yanes said in a press release. The researchers found that the climate grew warmer and could have supported the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture. “Even though previous research has not observed major climate change at that temporal transition at the study site, with the oxygen isotope analysis of these shells, we have evidence for a significant natural climate change,” she explained. For more about prehistoric snails, go to "What Paleolithic People Were Really Eating."

New Dates for Italy’s Neanderthals

ROME, ITALY—Radioactive deposits in sediments taken from the inside of two Neanderthal skulls discovered in a gravel pit in central Italy in the early twentieth century have been re-dated by a team made up of researchers from Sapienza University, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Italian Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV). “The results of our studies show that the Saccopastore remains are 100,000 years older than previously thought—and push back the arrival of Neanderthal man in Italy to 250,000 years ago,” Fabrizio Marra of INGV told The Local, Italy. This is about the same time that Neanderthals are believed to have arrived in central Europe. The new dates are also in line with the age of 11 stone artifacts that had been discovered with the fossils. To read more in-depth about Paleolithic Europe, go to "Structural Integrity."

China’s First Porcelain Was Probably Made With Local Materials

SHANGHAI, CHINA—A team of scientists led by Yu Li of Fudan University has conducted proton-induced X-ray emission analyses of pieces of proto-porcelain and fragments of impressed stoneware collected at the site of the Piaoshan kiln. The site is thought to date to China’s first dynasty, between 2070 and 1600 B.C. Samples from five other early kiln sites in the vicinity were also tested. They found that the samples from the six kiln sites each had distinct chemical profiles, which may indicate that the raw materials used to produce the pots had been procured locally. “The research clearly shows the relationship of inheritance of early Chinese proto-porcelain, and fills the large gaps in knowledge regarding the origin of Chinese proto-porcelain,” Yu Li said in a press release. For more on archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Burial Vault Discovered Near Washington Square Park

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—A burial vault thought to date to the nineteenth century has been found near Washington Square Park by a Department of Design and Construction (DDC) crew installing new water mains, catch basins, sewer manholes, traffic lights, and other park upgrades. The park, located in Greenwich Village, had been built on a cemetery for the poor. “Working together with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, DDC will evaluate the extent and significance of the vault and its contents,” Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora said in a statement reported in DNA Info. The vault measures some eight feet deep, 15 feet wide, and 20 feet long, and contains the remains of at least a dozen people. For more on excavations in the city, go to "New York's Original Seaport."

Wednesday, November 04

Conservators Are Repairing Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Fort

JAFFNA, SRI LANKA—War and neglect have taken a toll on Jaffna Fort, a star-shaped structure built in the seventeenth century by Dutch colonists on the Jaffa peninsula. Archaeologist Prashantha Mandawala of the University of Sri Jayewadenepura is leading the effort to remove unexploded mines and shells from the site. “There was also vandalism. Some people whose houses were damaged during the war had vandalized the fort to remove limestones to rebuild their homes,” Mandawala told The Sun Daily. Some 150 workers are looking for the limestone bricks in people’s homes, in the fort’s moat, and making replacements. “The biggest challenge we face in carrying out the restoration is finding coral stone. Environmental laws prevent us from quarrying limestone so we have to improvise,” he explained. The project will also restore a Dutch church and the governor’s residence built by the British in the eighteenth century. To read about archaeology in India, go to "India's Village of the Dead."

Remains of Russia’s Alexander III Will Be Exhumed

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—Russian researchers are examining the blood-stained clothing worn by Tsar Alexander II when he was assassinated in 1881, and making plans to exhume the remains of Tsar Alexander III, located in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Alexander III, who died in 1894, was the father of the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II, who was killed, along with his wife and five children, during the Russian Revolution in 1918. The bodies of Nicholas II, his wife, and three of the children are thought to have been discovered in Yekaterinburg in 1991, and were reburied in Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998. In 2007, the remains identified as Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria were found in another grave, and are now stored in a state archive. According to the Associated Foreign Press, the Russian Orthodox Church is insisting on further DNA testing to confirm the identity of the remains of the slain family, canonized as martyrs, before they can be buried together. To read about how forensic archaeology has been applied in Iraq, go to "Witness to Genocide."

Documents Describe World War II Occupation

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Archaeologist Gilly Carr of the University of Cambridge has been researching the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, which began in 1940 and lasted until 1945. There was one German soldier for every three inhabitants on the heavily fortified islands. Last summer, she requested information from residents, and received a briefcase full of papers that were compiled in the 1960s. “The file is incredible. Resistance in the Channel Islands was different: it was not organized, and was unarmed—individuals and small groups doing small acts of silent and symbolic resistance. I realized as soon as I saw it that this is the most important resistance archive to come out of the Channel Islands in the last 50 years,” she told The Guardian. The stories had been compiled by Frank Falla, who was deported to Germany and imprisoned for organizing a newspaper after radios were confiscated in 1942. The testimonies were sent to the Foreign Office, which was distributing compensation received from Germany. “It is an immensely important archive, demonstrating their bravery and courage,” commented Sir Geoffrey Rowland, the current bailiff of Guernsey. To read more, go to "Archaeology of WWII."

17th C. Family Burial Vault Discovered in Gloucester Cathedral

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND—A seventeenth-century family burial vault was discovered under the floor of Gloucester Cathedral’s north transept when archaeologists lifted a nearby ledger stone in preparation for the installation of an elevator. The vault contains the remains of the wealthy Hyett family, including an infant, who had been buried in well-preserved coffins. “What you normally find when you dig up a ledger slab is earth and bones, there’s nothing specific in there,” cathedral archaeologist Richard Morriss explained in a press release. But a small hole was created when the ledger stone was lifted, and archaeologists could see the contents of the vault. “And the name plates [on the coffins] actually match up with the names on the ledgers above, which is remarkable,” Morriss added. To read about archaeological evidence for Christian worship in medieval England, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."

Tuesday, November 03

New Test Dates DNA Samples

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Researchers led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology have developed a way to test the authenticity of ancient DNA based upon biochemical changes that accumulate with age. The changes cause cytosine (C), a building block of DNA, to be misread as thymine (T), another building block. Therefore, DNA samples will show either ancient or modern patterns of cytosine-to-thymine changes. “Modern DNA can easily contaminate precious samples so it is crucial to build in assurances that historic DNA is authentic,” Clemens Weiß told His team used this new test to examine a sample of wheat found submerged off the Isle of Wight. It had been thought that the wheat was 8,000 years old and evidence of trade between hunter-gatherers living in England and Neolithic farmers in Europe. The new test suggests that the wheat is younger than a few hundred years old. To read more about ancient DNA, go to "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."

News from the “New World Pompeii”

  BOULDER, COLORADO—Excavations under the direction of Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado, Boulder, continue at Cerén, a Maya village in El Salvador that was buried under 17 feet of volcanic ash in A.D. 660. Recent research suggests that the estimated 200 people who resided in the farming village lived with little influence from elites over their architecture, crop choices, religious activities, and economics. Among the 12 buildings that have been uncovered are living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings, and a community sauna. Specialty items, including jade axes, have been found in most of the households. Sheets and his team think that the Cerén commoners may have traded with Maya elites in nearby towns for these objects. The team is also investigating a sacbe, or roadway made from packed ash, where they have found more than a dozen footprints to the south of the village. “More than half of the footprints were headed south away from the village, away from the danger. I think at least some of them were left by people fleeing the eruption,” Sheets said in a press release from the National Science Foundation. To read more about Cerén, go to "Off the Grid."