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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, July 07

Column Bases May Represent Lost Urartu Temple

  LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS—Column bases thought to be from a temple dedicated to Haldi, the supreme god of the kingdom of Urartu, have been uncovered by villagers in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where doctoral student Dlshad Marf Zamua of Leiden University has been conducting fieldwork. The 2,500-year-old temple was located in the city of Musasir, known as a “holy city founded in bedrock,” and “the city of the raven.” To the south of where the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey intersect, Marf Zamua has also found several life-sized statues of bearded males carved from limestone, basalt, and sandstone that were originally erected above burials. Some of the figures hold a cup in their right hands, with their left hands on their bellies. “One of them holds a hand ax. Another one put on a dagger,” he told Live Science. The statues date to the seventh or sixth century B.C., after Musasir fell to the Assyrians.   

19th-Century Fort Found in Florida Everglades

  COLLIER COUNTY, FLORIDA—Shawn Beightol, a high school chemistry teacher, led a small expedition in southern Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve to look for Fort Harrell, built by the U.S. Army in 1837 as an outpost for soldiers fighting the second Seminole War. “I’d like to see a monument placed there for the people who served in that godforsaken location 170 years ago. Their story needs to be told,” Beightol told the Sun Sentinel. On the team’s fifth expedition into the Everglades, after studying historic maps, engineering surveys, and aerial photographs, they found a clearing with postholes dug in limestone. “Once we saw the holes, I knew we had found it,” said expedition member Tony Pernas, who is an employee of the U.S. National Park Service. Traces of the fort were last seen during construction work in the early twentieth century.  

Volcanic Ash Yields Three Ancient Skeletons in El Salvador

  SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR—The Japan Times reports that three nearly complete skeletons have been unearthed by a joint Salvadoran and Japanese team of archaeologists from a seven-foot layer of volcanic ash at Nueva Esperanza, thought to have been a center of salt production and fishing 1,600 years ago. The two adults had been between the ages of 25 and 35 at the time of death. The third skeleton belonged to a child between seven and nine years of age, who had been buried wearing to clay beads around his or her neck. Further analysis could determine the sex, diet, and health status of the individuals. Clay pots and jars decorated with red and brown stripes were also found in the burials.   

Coin Hoard Discovered in Derbyshire Cave

  DERBYSHIRE, ENGLAND—Coins from the Late Iron Age and coins from the Roman Republic have been discovered together in a cave in the Peak District. Four of the coins were discovered by a member of the public, which led to an excavation by archaeologists from the National Trust, who were assisted by wounded veterans from Operation Nightingale. “In total we found 26 coins, including three Roman coins which pre-date the invasion of Britain in A.D. 43. The coins would suggest a serious amount of wealth and power of the individual who owned them,” archaeologist Rachael Hall told the Northamptonshire Telegraph. Twenty of the Late Iron Age gold and silver coins are thought to belong to the Corieltavi tribe. All of the coins are being cleaned and conserved by specialists at the British Museusm and University College London.  

Thursday, July 03

Small Jade Casket Discovered in North China

  HEBEI, CHINA—A small jade casket said to contain human relics of a prominent Hinayana Buddhist was discovered by a farmer plowing a field in the political, economic, and cultural center of Yecheng, a 2,500-year-old capital city. Hinayana Buddhism prevailed in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. The jade casket indicates that it had also been introduced to the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. “Such as casket containing relics of a prominent Buddhist is often enshrined in an underground palace of a Buddhist temple,” archaeologist He Liqun of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told The Standard.  

Skeletons Found at a Late-Roman Villa in England

  BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND—Five skeletons that could represent three generations have been unearthed at a Roman villa in southern England. The skeletons, which date to the mid-fourth century, are the first to have been found at a villa in Roman Britain. “This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry, and where they came from,” Miles Russell of Bournemouth University told The Bournemouth Echo. The team wants to know if the villa was owned by Britons who became Romans, or if people from another part of the Empire moved to the rural area. “These remains will shed light on the final stages of the golden age of Roman Britain,” said co-director Paul Cheetham.  

Interbreeding Helped Modern Humans Adapt to New Environment

  BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—A gene variant that helps Sherpas and other Tibetans breathe at high altitudes was inherited from the Denisovans, according to a new study conducted by an international team of scientists. Tibetans have less hemoglobin in their blood, and are able to use smaller amounts of oxygen efficiently. The scientists sequenced a gene called EPAS1, which regulates the production of hemoglobin in the body, in 40 Tibetans and 40 Han Chinese. (Their ancestors split into two groups sometime between 2,750 and 5,500 years ago.) Population geneticist Rasmus Nielsen and Emilia Huerta-Sanchez of the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the DNA and found that the Tibetans and two of the Han Chinese had a segment of the gene in which five letters of the code were identical. That particular code, however, was not found in anyone else from around the world who had participated in the 1000 Genomes Project. When compared to the genomes of archaic humans, the sequences of the Denisovan and Tibetan segments were a close match. The team thinks that the gene segment survived in Tibetans through natural selection because it helped them adapt to high-altitude life on the Tibetan plateau. “Modern humans didn’t wait for new mutations to adapt to a new environment. They could pick up adaptive traits by interbreeding,” Nielsen told Science Now.   

Seahenge and 2nd Circle Were Built at the Same Time

  HOLME BEACH, ENGLAND—A second Bronze Age timber circle preserved in salty silt on a beach in eastern England has been dated with dendrochronology to the same summer as its neighbor, Seahenge, whose 55 posts surrounded the upended stump of an oak tree. Known as Holme II, the second ring consisted of two oak logs laid flat, surrounded by an oval of oak posts with smaller branches woven between them, then an outer ark of split oak timbers, and then a fence of closely set split oak timbers, according to The Guardian. The two circles were built from trees cut down in the spring or summer of 2049 B.C. Coastal erosion exposed the circles, which had been built in boggy freshwater 4,000 years ago. “As the timbers used in both timber circles were felled at the same time, the construction of the two monuments must have been directly linked. Seahenge is thought to have been a free-standing timber circle, possibly to mark the death of an individual, acting as a cenotaph symbolizing death rather than a location for burial. If part of a burial mound, the second circle would have been the actual burial place,” said David Robertson, historic environment officer at Norfolk County Council.   

Wednesday, July 02

Changes in Human Skin Studied

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—It had been thought that Northern Europeans developed light skin in order to absorb more UV light to process more vitamin D, necessary for healthy bones and immune function. But a new study conducted by a team led by professor of dermatology Peter Elias from the University of California, San Francisco, shows that the changes in skin’s function as a barrier to water loss is more likely. The skin-barrier protein filaggrin is broken down into a molecule called urocanic acid, which Elias says is the most potent absorber of UVB light in the skin. “It’s certainly more important than melanin in lightly-pigmented skin,” he explained. Elias and his team found that up to ten percent of normal Northern Europeans carry mutations in the filaggrin gene, compared to much lower mutation rates in southern European, Asian, and African populations. “Higher filaggrin mutation rates result in a loss of urocanic acid, correlated with higher vitamin D levels in the blood. Latitude-dependent variations in melanin genes are not similarly associated with vitamin D levels. This evidence suggests that changes in the skin barrier played a role in Northern Europeans’ evolutionary adaptation to Northern latitudes,” the study concluded. Pigmented skin would have offered ancestral humans living in sub-Saharan Africa protection against dehydration and infections. “Once human populations migrated northward, away from the tropical onslaught of UVB, pigment was gradually lost in service of metabolic conservation. The body will not waste precious energy and proteins to make proteins that in no longer needs.”

Building Big Brains With Bugs

  ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—A five-year study of capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica led by Amanda D. Melin of Washington University in St. Louis suggests that figuring out how to find food during seasonal changes in the food supply may have spurred the development of bigger brains, higher-level cognitive functions, and increased manual dexterity in human ancestors and other primates. “We find that capuchin monkeys eat embedded insects year-round but intensify their feeding seasonally, during the time that their preferred food—ripe fruit—is less abundant. These results suggest embedded insects are an important fallback food,” she told Science Daily. Such fallback foods are thought to help shape the evolution of body forms that aid in digestion, and the evolution of the brain in primates that live in areas with wide seasonal variations and changes in the food supply. This is evident in capuchin lineages—gracile capuchins live in tropical rainforests and can bang snails and fruits against branches to obtain their food. But robust capuchins, which spread from the Atlantic rainforest into drier, more seasonal habitats millions of years ago, are known for their innovative use and modification of sophisticated tools.  

11th-Dynasty Chapel Discovered in Egypt

  ABYDOS, EGYPT—An 11th Dynasty chapel belonging to King Mentuhotep II was discovered on the west bank of the Nile in the city of Sohag, according to Ahram Online. Located near the large temple of King Seti I, Mentuhotep II built the chapel of limestone to honor the god Osiris after his unification with the local god of Sohag, Khenti-Amenty. Some of the engravings on the chapel’s walls have been damaged by subterranean water. “It is a very important discovery that will reveal more of the history of King Mentuhotep II,” said Minister of Antiquities and Heritage Mamdouh El-Damaty.    

Summer Palace Unearthed at India’s Taj Mahal

  AGRA, INDIA—Remains of a summer palace have been uncovered in the area opposite the Taj Mahal. The building is thought to have been a baradari, a pavilion designed to allow the free flow of air, set in the Mughal-era garden Mehtab Bagh, reportedly Shah Jahan’s favorite spot for its view of the Taj at night. “The present work is going in the south direction of the garden in the straight alignment of the Taj Mahal which makes the discovery an interesting one,” an official from the Archaeological Survey of India told The Times of India. The summer palace may have been inundated by flooding of the Yamuna River.