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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, April 03

Dates Obtained for Italy’s Altamura Man

ROME, ITALY—A tiny piece of shoulder bone and stalactite fragments collected from Altamura Man have been tested by researchers led by Giorgio Manzi of the Sapienza University of Rome. The remains, discovered in 1993 by cave explorers, are embedded in the rock and have not been removed from the cave. Only the head and part of a shoulder are visible, and were thought to represent an archaic Neanderthal, which lived in Europe between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago. The new test results, publicized in, support the identification of the individual as a Neanderthal who may have fallen in a natural well and gotten stuck. Uranium-thorium dating revealed that the calcite in the stalactite fragments was formed 172,000 to 130,000 years ago. DNA from the bone sample is thus the oldest ever recovered from Neanderthal remains. The next step is to try to sequence the DNA sample. For more on our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Sturdy Roman Villa Unearthed in North Yorkshire

BEDALE, ENGLAND—A vast Roman villa with winged corridors is being excavated in North Yorkshire, at a site where a new bypass is being built. Pottery from the villa dates to the mid-third to fourth centuries A.D. Culture 24 reports that the villa was surrounded by a landscape of enclosures and field systems. Stones from its masonry walls were likely to have been reused by later builders, but the cobble foundations of the walls survive in deep trenches. The villa was eventually demolished, and in areas of the building, archaeologists from Prospect Archaeology have recovered pieces of its painted-plaster walls that had fallen on an intact concrete floor. There was also a pavilion-style room with an under-floor heating system. This room had wall tiles and painted wall plaster in many colors that may have been used for entertaining. Stone and tile roof tiles, iron nails, and small quantities of window glass have been recovered across the building. For a unique look at Roman life in the north of England, read "Artifact: A Roman Party Invitation."

Thursday, April 02

Honolulu Museum Aids Artifact Investigation

HONOLULU, HAWAII—The Honolulu Museum of Art has handed seven artifacts thought to have been stolen from India over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we’ve had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don’t belong here,” museum director Stephan Jost told The seven artifacts are now part of a case against a New York art dealer accused of being part of an international antiquities smuggling operation. “It’s good to know we’re recovering this material and we’ll be able to send it back because a lot of this material left India, I think, before the government knew it was there,” said Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter. He added that the museum was “incredibly helpful” with the case. “The more light you shine on systems, the more you ruin their market and I’m more than happy to ruin their market,” museum director Jost said. To read in-depth about an extraordinary Iron Age site, see "India's Village of the Dead."

Egyptian Artifacts Found in Southern Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Inspectors with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery found pickaxes and other clues left behind by looters in a cave in southern Israel. They also found a cache of 3,000-year-old Egyptian artifacts that the diggers missed, including intact pots; jewelry made of bronze, shells, and faience; oil lamps; amulets; alabaster jars; cosmetic vessels; and Egyptian scarab seals dating to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. “During this period, Canaan was ruled by Egypt,” Daphna Ben-Tor of the Israel Museum said in a statement released by the IAA and reported in Live Science. The names of the kings on the seals, such as Thutmose and Amenhotep, helped archaeologists to date the artifacts. To read more about the ancient Egyptian presence in Israel, see "Egyptian Style in Ancient Canaan." 

Two 6th-Dynasty Tombs Discovered Near Saqqara

SAQQARA, EGYPT—Two 6th Dynasty tombs have been discovered at the site of Tabit El-Geish, according to an announcement made by Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. Both tombs are painted with offering scenes. The first tomb belonged to a priest named Ankhti, the second to a priest named Sabi. Their skeletal remains had been scattered, suggesting that the tombs had been robbed and vandalized in antiquity. Alabaster jars, colored limestone offerings, and pottery were also found. Vassil Dobrev, director of the mission for the Institut Français d’archéologie Orientale, told the Luxor Times that the upper part of the tombs were built with mud brick and the burial chambers were cut out of the white limestone bedrock. To read in-depth about the discovery of another Egyptian funerary site, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Seventeenth-Century Camel Skeleton Unearthed in Austria

VIENNA, AUSTRIA—The complete skeleton of a camel dating to the Second Ottoman War of the seventeenth century was recovered during rescue excavations in the Lower Austrian city of Tulln. Genetic testing revealed that the camel was a male hybrid of a dromedary in the maternal line and a Bactrian camel in the paternal line. “The partly excavated skeleton was at first suspected to be a large horse or cattle,” archaeozoologist Alfred Galik said in a University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna press release. “But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel.” The Ottoman army often used hybrid camels for transportation because they were bigger and easier to handle than their pure-bred parents. Camels were also sometimes eaten, but this skeleton had not been butchered. Other artifacts from the excavation, including a medicine bottle from the “Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone” helped date the site. The camel “may have been acquired as part of an exchange. The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln. They probably didn’t know what to feed it or whether one could eat it. Perhaps it died a natural death and was then buried without being used,” Galik explained. To read about the effort to rescue an Ottoman-era site, see "Saving the Silver City."

Wednesday, April 01

Little Foot Fossils Are 3.67 Million Years Old

WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA—Little Foot, an Australopithecus prometheus skeleton discovered by Ronald Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand in central South Africa, has been dated at 3.67 million years old with a new technique pioneered by Darryl Granger and Ryan Gibbon of Purdue University. Australopithecus prometheus is very different from its contemporary Australopithecus afarenis, and is more similar to the Paranthropus lineage. “It demonstrates that the later hominids, for example Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus did not all have to have derived from Australopithecus afarensis,” Clarke said in a press release. “We have only a small number of sites and we tend to base our evolutionary scenarios on the few fossils we have from those sites. This new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa.” The Little Foot fossils were dated with isochron burial dating, which measures the radioactive isotopes aluminum-26 and beryllium-10 that are created when quartz within rock is exposed to cosmic rays. When the rock is buried or deposited in a cave, the isotopes decay at very slow, known rates, allowing scientists to determine how long the rock has been underground, Granger explained. “If we had only one sample and that rock happened to have been buried, then re-exposed and buried again, the date would be off because the amount of radioisotopes would have increased during its second exposure. With this method we can tell if that has happened or if the sample has remained undisturbed since burial with the fossil. It is expensive and a lot of work to take and run multiple samples, but I think this is the future of burial dating because of the confidence one can have in the results,” he said. To read more about Australopithecus species, see "The Human Mosaic."

Cultivation Began in the Caribbean Much Earlier Than Thought

WINNIPEG, CANADA—Information collected by a team of Cuban and Canadian scientists from starch grains in dental calculus and the isotopes in bone collagen demonstrates that the people who lived at the site of Canímar Abajo in Cuba processed and ate common bean, sweet potato, and a highly toxic plant called zamia that needs special treatment prior to consumption as early as 1000 B.C., or 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. “This unequivocal evidence of domestic plant consumption will serve to dispel the notion that indigenous Cubans from that time period were fisher-gatherers with no knowledge of agriculture and cultivated plants,” Rodríguez Suarez of the University of Havana said in a press release. “Canímar Abajo is just beginning to produce surprises that challenge the archaeological paradigm for the region,” added David Smith of the University of Toronto (Mississauga). To read in-depth about another Caribbean find, see "Pirates of the Original Panama Canal."

Who Painted the Meidum Geese?

ENNA, SICILY—Francesco Tiradritti of Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt thinks that the Meidum Geese, a painting supposedly found in a tomb near the Meidum Pyramid in 1871 by Luigi Vassalli, may be a forgery. Vassalli is credited with removing the painting, now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and putting it in the Museum Bulaq, where he was a curator. The painting depicts three kinds of geese: white-fronted geese, bean geese, and red-breasted geese. Tiradritti told Live Science that when he realized that the bean goose and the red-breasted goose were unlikely to have been seen in Egypt, he took a more critical look at the painting, considered by many to be a masterpiece of Egyptian art. He found that some of the colors in the painting are unique, and the way that the geese are drawn, so that they appear to be the same size, is also unusual. The ancient Egyptians drew animals and people in different sizes, sometimes in order to convey their importance. Tiradritti adds that the cracks in the painting “are not compatible with the supposed ripping of the painting from the wall.” He thinks the geese were painted by Vassalli, who was a trained artist. “The only thing that, in my opinion, still remains to ascertain is what was (or ‘is’) painted under them. But that can be only established through a noninvasive analysis,” he said. To read about Egyptian animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."  

Medieval Hospital Cemetery Unearthed in Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A medieval hospital cemetery beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College, Cambridge, has turned out to be much larger than previously thought. More than 400 intact burials were excavated during the renovation of the building, along with the disarticulated remains of as many as 1,000 individuals, for “one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarchaeological assemblages from the British Isles,” Craig Cessford of Cambridge University said in a press release. Most of the burials lacked coffins, and many even lacked shrouds, suggesting that the cemetery served “poor scholars and other wretched persons,” who were cared for at the hospital, as described in its Augustinain ordinance from 1250. “Evidence for clothing and grave-goods is rarer than at most hospital cemeteries, principally because this was a purely lay graveyard with no clerics present,” Cessford said. Pregnant women were not cared for at the hospital, and in fact, no remains of infants and few young women were identified among the bodies. The cemetery had gravel paths and a well. Seeds from flowering plants have also been recovered. To read in-depth about a similar discovery, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."