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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, June 03

Solstice Alignments Spotted in Washington, D.C., Garden

TURIN, ITALY—The statues and walkways in a symmetrical nineteenth-century garden in Washington D.C. are aligned to the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstices, according to physicist Amelia Sparavigna of Politecnico di Torino. Live Science reports that, using satellite imagery and astronomical software, Sparavigna found that the solstice sun aligns with the statue of President Andrew Jackson that stands in the center of the Lafayette Square garden. Four walkways radiate out from this statue. Standing near the statue of Andrew Jackson, it would appear that on the summer solstice, the sun rises at the northeast end of one path, and sets at the northwest end of the opposite path. On the winter solstice, the sun would appear to rise at the southeast end of another path and set at the southwest end of its opposite. Sparavigna says it is unclear why designer Andrew Jackson Downing aligned the ends of the walkways to the solstice sun. For more, go to "Letter from England: The Scientist's Garden."

Scientists Say “Lost City” Formed by Natural Phenomenon

NORWICH, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Athens and the University of East Anglia say that what looked like the paved floors, courtyards, and colonnades of a lost city in shallow waters off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos were actually created by a natural geological phenomenon up to five million years ago. According to a report in Tech Times, Julian Andrews of the University of East Anglia noticed that there wasn’t any pottery or other signs of human activity around the supposed ruins, which were discovered by recreational divers. The researchers took a closer look at the mineral content and texture of the stones with X-rays, microscopy, and stable isotope techniques. They think the column-shaped concretions are the result of mineralization at hydrocarbon seeps along a fault under the seabed. Microbes in the seafloor sediments used the methane and other gases from the fault as fuel, changing the chemistry of the sediment and forming the concretions. Erosion eventually exposed and shaped the concretions. “This kind of phenomenon is quite rare in shallow waters,” Andrews said. “Most similar discoveries tend to be many hundreds and often thousands of meters deep underwater.” For more, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb."

Thursday, June 02

New Thoughts on Dog Domestication

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A genetic study led by Laurent Frantz of the University of Oxford suggests that dogs may have been domesticated separately in Asia and in Europe or the Near East. The researchers obtained DNA from the inner ear bone of a nearly 5,000-year-old dog discovered at Newgrange, a site on the east coast of Ireland, and sequenced its entire genome. They then compared it to the nuclear DNA of 605 modern dogs from around the world and calculated a genetic mutation rate. The analysis revealed a divide between Asian dogs and European dogs between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago, and a sharp decline in the numbers of European dogs. “We never saw this split before because we didn’t have enough samples,” project leader and evolutionary biologist Greger Larson said in a report in Science. Remains of dogs found in Germany have been estimated to be more than 16,000 years old, however, suggesting that dogs could have been domesticated in Europe before migrating Asian dogs might have replaced them. “We don’t know if the dogs that evolved [early] in Europe were an evolutionary dead end, but we can safely say that their genetic legacy has mostly been erased from today’s dogs,” said Frantz. For more on dogs in archaeology, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Maya May Have Tracked Venus From Acanceh Observatory

MÉRIDA, MEXICO—According to a report in Fox News Latino and the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior, Beatriz Quintal Suaste of the Yucatán National Institute of Anthropology and History says that an observatory at the Early Classic Maya site of Acanceh may have helped priest-astronomers track the movement of the planet Venus. The third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and the moon, Venus is thought to have been represented in Maya mythology by a god named Noh Ek. The new study suggests that the southern edge of the observatory aligns with the northernmost position of Venus in the night sky. Three codexes found at the site support the idea that the ancient astronomers would have been able to track Venus’s 584-day cycle through the sky from the observatory. 

Archaeologists Return to the Judean Desert

TZEELIM VALLEY, ISRAEL—Reuters reports that Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists have returned to the Judean desert as part of a national project to rescue any artifacts remaining in cliff-side caves from looting. “These looters that operate in the area are experts at finding scrolls,” said Guy Fitoussi, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority robbery prevention unit in southern Israel. “We go after them, look for what they are looking for, and try to catch them.” His team is currently excavating the Cave of the Skulls, named for human remains thought to have belonged to Jewish rebels who hid in the cave during the Bar Kokhba rebellion some 2,000 years ago. In 2014, six people were arrested at the site, which is located on a cliff some 820 feet above a dry river bed that leads to the Dead Sea. So far, the team has recovered a piece of rope that may have been used by the Bar Kokhba rebels. To read about another find associated with the Bar Kokhba rebellion, go to "2,000-Year-Old Stashed Treasure."

Wednesday, June 01

World War I–Era Training Camp Excavated in Ohio

CHILLICOTHE, OHIO—The Chillicothe Gazette reports that archaeologist Andy Sewell, members of the Ohio History Connection, and additional volunteers are investigating Camp Sherman, a large World War I–era training site for the Ohio Army National Guard, ahead of the construction of a power distribution center. The team has uncovered sewer pipes and the foundations of several buildings, including one they think might have been a fire station. “Surprises have been finding parts of buildings that don’t match the maps,” Sewell said. “Mainly, the buildings are where they are supposed to be, but there’s a mess hall, for instance, that’s further to the west than it shows on the map, and it kind of matches up with some of the photos that show it in line with another mess hall,” he said. Footprints in the bakery’s concrete could also reflect how quickly the camp was constructed. Charred pages from a ledger, a broken bottle, the base of a toilet, food waste, and burned soil where the bakery ovens may have been located have also been found. To read about the World War I battlefield at Gallipoli, go to "Letter from Turkey: Anzac's Next Chapter." 

Blade of Ancient Egyptian Dagger Analyzed

MILAN, ITALY—Daniela Comelli of the Polytechnic University of Milan and her team conducted an analysis of the dagger found in the wrappings of Tutankhamun’s mummy by Howard Carter in 1925. The dagger, which dates to the fourteenth century B.C., has a gold handle, a rock crystal pommel, a gold sheath, and an iron blade. But the ancient Egyptians are thought to have developed iron smelting much later, in the eighth century B.C. “The problem is iron working is related to its high melting point,” Comelli said in an Associated Press report. “Because of it, early smiths couldn’t heat ore enough to extract iron and couldn’t forge the iron into weapons.” Using a technique called X-ray fluorescence, Comelli found that Tutankhamun’s metal blade contains ten percent nickel and 0.6 percent cobalt, a composition that is similar to that of known metallic meteorites. The analysis suggests that the dagger could have been hammered from rare meteoritic iron, which is thought to have been considered more valuable than gold. For more, go to "Egypt’s Immigrant Elite."

Texts From the Early Years of Roman Rule Found in London

LONDON, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of the new European Bloomberg headquarters have yielded 405 Roman writing tablets, 87 of which have been deciphered. According to a report in BBC News, this more than quadruples the number of known Roman writing tablets recovered in London. Romans would have used styluses to write on a layer of blackened beeswax covering such wooden tablets. The wax did not survive on these tablets, but some of the etchings went through the wax to mark the wood, which was preserved for nearly 2,000 years in the mud of the buried Walbrook River. Roger Tomlin, an expert in cursive Latin, deciphered and interpreted the writings with the help of digital photographic methods. The texts include the earliest-known reference to London, an alphabet thought to have been written as practice or to demonstrate literacy, and a financial document dated January 8, A.D. 57. Researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology say it is the earliest intrinsically dated document to have been found in the United Kingdom. For more on this site, go to "Roman London Underground."