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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, September 16

Sixteen Pyramids Unearthed at Kushite Cemetery

  LONDON, ENGLAND—Sixteen pyramids sitting atop tombs have been unearthed since 1998 in a large cemetery near the ancient town of Gematon in Sudan. The largest was about 35 feet long on each side and would have stood some 43 feet tall. “So far, we’ve excavated six made out of stone and 10 made out of mud brick,” Derek Welsby of the British Museum told Live Science. Other tombs in the 2,000-year-old cemetery were topped with rectangular structures known as mastabas, or piles of rocks called tumuli. Most of the tombs at the site have been looted, but one yielded a royal tin-bronze offering table bearing a scene showing a prince or priest offering incense and libations to the god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. Osiris and the goddess Isis, who is also shown in the image, originated in Egypt, but they were also venerated in Kush. Gematon was eventually abandoned as trade routes changed and the economy of the Roman Empire deteriorated. To read more about Kushite pyramids, go to "Miniature Pyramids of Sudan."

Generations of Denisovans Visited Siberian Cave

LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports from the meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution that new dates have been obtained for Siberia’s Denisova Cave, where a tiny finger bone representing a girl from a new human species was discovered. At the time, the dates obtained from animal bones and artifacts from the cave ranged between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Geochronologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford has re-dated the sequence using 20 samples of cut-marked bones and ornaments from the cave. Oxford archaeologist Katerina Douka reported that the finger bone was likely older than 48,000 to 50,000 years, the limit of radiocarbon dating. Nuclear and mitchondrial DNA from several Denisovan molars have also been analyzed by Viviane Slon and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The nuclear DNA showed that the inhabitants of the cave were not closely related. Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA were used to estimate when the individuals lived. The oldest Denisovan died in the cave at least 110,000 years ago, and the girl whose pinky finger bone was discovered lived some 65,000 years later. “You can seriously see it’s a valid species,” commented Fred Spoor of University College London. For more, go to "Denisovan DNA."

Human Ancestors Ate Food on the Ground Earlier Than Thought

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Early human ancestors started foraging for food on the ground some 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study of the teeth of human ancestors and an array of animals from the Afar region of Ethiopia. The research team, led by Naomi E. Levin of Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the morphology of the teeth and their carbon isotopes in order to determine what kinds of foods the creatures were eating. The results for both human ancestors and a now-extinct species of baboon suggest that the switch from foods from trees and shrubs to grass-based foods, including the tissues of animals that ate grasses such as birds and insects, happened about 3.8 million years ago. “The results not only show an earlier start to grass-based food consumption among hominins and baboons but also indicate that form does not always precede function. In the earliest baboons, dietary shift toward grass occurred before its teeth were specialized for grazing,” Levin explained in a press release. The change in diet would have made human ancestors more resilient to habitat change, she added. For more on human ancestors, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Tuesday, September 15

Study Suggests Children’s Medieval Burial Was Revered

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—In 1992, archaeologists recovered the remains of two children in a single coffin under Frankfurt Cathedral. A new report on the discovery reveals that the children were approximately four years old at the time of death, which occurred between A.D. 700 and 730. One of the children had been dressed in a tunic and shawl in the style of Merovingian nobility, with gold, silver, bronze, and precious stone jewelry, while the other had been cremated in a bearskin, according to Scandinavian customs of the time. This child had a necklace resembling a Scandinavian amulet. The grave had been placed near a small church, and was still being honored some 100 years later, when a palace chapel was constructed and aligned with it. “We don’t know exactly why they were honored, that’s the real question, Egon Wamers, director of the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, told The Local, Germany. For more, go to "Dark Age Necropolis Unearthed."

Poland’s Oldest Stone Wall Unearthed in the Carpathians

MASZKOWICE, POLAND—Beneath the remains of a Bronze Age settlement, a team from Jagiellonian University, led by Marcin S. Przybyla, has unearthed Poland’s oldest-known stone wall. “In the whole of Central Europe there are only a dozen sites dated so early with more or less well-preserved stone fortifications. At that time, the use of stone as a building material was typical of the Mediterranean areas. In the temperate zone of Europe, until the Middle Ages, fortifications were built with wood and clay,” Przybyla explained in Science & Scholarship in Poland. A figurine from the site resembles statuettes usually found in Mycenaean Greece and the northern Balkans and offers another link to Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean. The structure, which has been dated to between 1750 and 1690 B.C., was built on the top of a hill that had been flattened and expanded. The sandstone walls of the fortress, thought to have been nearly nine feet tall based upon the measurements of fallen rocks, were held together with clay. A deep, narrow trench and a narrow gate were also part of the site’s defense system. To read more about the Bronze Age, go to "The Minoans of Crete."

Early Humans Practiced Ambush Hunting

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND—An international team of anthropologists and earth scientists led by Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University has made a model of the ancient landscape of the Olorgesailie region of the Kenyan Rift. “By reconstructing the topographic setting in the area and examining the trace nutrients in soils there now and interviewing local Maasai leaders about current animal grazing activities, we were able to build up a picture of animal movements around one million years ago,” Reynolds said in a press release. She and the team of researchers found that the topography provided limited routes for large animals to travel through the grazing areas, and high ground for human ancestors to watch them. The placement of butchered remains and stone tool sites on the landscape suggest that the early humans exploited these limited pathways to practice ambush hunting. “These were fearsome, aggressive animals. From my perspective that tells us that the hominins were organized, they were able to communicate a plan to each other. These are not the sort of animals that you can hunt alone,” she said on a video clip. For more on prehistoric hunting practices, go to "Prehistoric Hunting Blinds." 

Monday, September 14

Seventh-Century Burials Discovered at Temple of Concordia

PALERMO, SICILY—The skeletons of two men thought to have been buried in the seventh-century A.D. have been unearthed by a team from the University of Palermo near the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. The valley is known for its seven well-preserved Greek temples. “The find is important because it shows a human presence in the city during the post-classical age,” Valentina Caminneci, an archaeologist at Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, told The Local, Italy. Further investigations could reveal if a Christian cemetery was placed in front of the temple after it was converted into a Christian basilica by the archbishop Gregory of Agrigento. For more, go to "The Fight for Ancient Sicily."

Early Christian Medallion Unearthed in Bulgaria

BURGAS, BULGARIA—A bronze medallion decorated with early Christian imagery has been found in the excavation of the sixth-century A.D. Burgos Fortress, located on Cape Foros in the Black Sea city of Burgas. On the obverse, a central cross covered with white enamel is surrounded by seven more crosses surrounded by yellow glass paste. On the reverse of the medallion, archaeologists have found traces of wood, indicating that it had been attached to a wooden object. “There is enough evidence that these kinds of medallions adorned boxes or wooden covers of liturgical books. That is why, at the present stage we assume that the medallion from Foros adorned the cover of a gospel book or a box used for keeping a liturgical item such as a book or a chalice,” the archaeological team from the Burgas Regional Museum of History said at a press conference reported in Archaeology in Bulgaria. The medallion resembles an altar decoration at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. To read about another example of early Christian imagery, go to "Artifact: Late Roman Amulet."

Australia’s Population Changes Studied With Campfires & Climate

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Occupation patterns in prehistoric Australia are closely linked to climate trends, according to a study conducted by Alan Williams of Australia National University and Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia. They used radiocarbon dates from more than 1,000 prehistoric campfire sites to track Australia’s ancient population levels. “Demographic models suggest populations may have been quite high before the last ice age,” Veth told Science Network: Western Australia. They then compared these results with the climate change profiles from a recent study of Australia’s palaeoclimate conducted by the OZ-INTIMATE (Australasian INTegration of Ice core, Marine, and TErrestrial records) Project. They found that the population remained steady or perhaps even declined from 25,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, when temperatures were about ten degrees cooler. “Then with the restructure in population and possibly lower carrying capacity for large portions of the continent that became more arid, population levels of demography may actually have become more negative,” he explained. When the wet season returned in the north some 13,000 years ago, campfire numbers began to grow again. For more on prehistoric Australia, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Toppled Tree in Ireland Reveals Medieval Burial

COLLOONEY, IRELAND—Heavy rains and winds in County Sligo toppled a beech tree and exposed the Christian burial of a teenage boy who lived during the early medieval period, sometime between A.D. 1030 and 1200. “The upper part of the skeleton was raised into the air trapped within the root system. The lower leg bones, however, remained intact in the ground. Effectively as the tree collapsed, it snapped the skeleton in two,” archaeologist Marion Dowd of Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services said in a statement reported in Discovery News. The teen once stood more than 5’ 10” tall, making him taller than average for the time. He had mild spinal joint disease, probably from a life of physical labor. The skeleton also showed evidence of two stab wounds. “Whether he died in battle or was killed during a personal dispute, we will never know for sure,” Dowd said. No other skeletons have been found in the area. To read about a medieval mass grave found in England, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."