Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 31

An Update from Virginia’s James Fort

JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA—The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reports that archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project are excavating the well found within the cellar that had been built by the colonists just outside the perimeter of the original James Fort structure. The team expected the well to have been filled with trash, like other old, brackish wells at James Fort. This well, however, was filled with clay. Senior staff archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson thinks that when the colonists expanded the cellar after the winter of 1609-1610, they put the clay they dug up into the well. Because the well had been located inside and down a flight of stairs, it may have been an inconvenient trash pit. “An absence of artifacts is actually a key part of the story,” added senior staff archaeologist Danny Schmidt. The bottom layer of the well may hold artifacts from the time when the well was in use. For more, go to "Jamestown’s VIPs," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top Ten Discoveries of 2015.

Iron-Age Remains Found on Isle of Wight

ISLE OF WIGHT, ENGLAND—Last year, two brothers discovered a set of human remains in the silt on Fishbourne Beach at low tide. The skeleton was lying on its left-hand side with its arms against its chest and legs bent. No clothing or other objects were found. According to On the Wight, local officials decided to recover as many of the bones as possible before the tide came in. A postmortem conducted by pathologist Basil Purdue concluded that the bones were ancient and belonged to a woman whose upper left arm bone and left collarbone were shorter than those on the right side of her body. She may have had a congenital deformity, or perhaps had suffered from a stroke that caused muscle wasting in the years before her death. Radiocarbon dating revealed the remains were nearly 2,000 years old. Barrister Caroline Sumeray explained that the remains will be housed at the Isle of Wight Museum. “They will be appropriately and ethically stored and recorded as per national guidelines for the treatment of human remains,” she said. To read about other finds from the same period, go to "Letter from Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age."

Traces of England’s Industrial Past Unearthed in Devon

DEVON, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Exeter Express and Echo, the Stover Canal, completed in 1794, was used to transport ball clay for making pottery from pits in the Bovey Basin to the port at Teignmouth for distribution. For the first time, a team of volunteers led by archaeologist Phil Newman of the Stover Canal Trust has excavated the remains of a 200-year-old canal barge at Ventiford Basin, in an upper section of the canal. By 1820, the canal was also used to transport granite from local quarries to the docks. Part of the journey was conducted on an unusual tramway made of granite blocks. Archaeologists have uncovered a section of the tramway, measuring more than 87 yards long, near the canal. “Although long and impressive sections of the tramroad survive in situ within Dartmoor National Park, until now it had been believed that the track was lost completely between Bovey Tracey and the head of the canal,” Newman said. “However, this amazing find, which represents three sidings off the main route, provides the only significant surviving section outside the national park.” To read about another find in the same area, go to "Seaton Down Hoard," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Ancient Crops Offer Clues to Colonization of Madagascar

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—Linguistic and genetic evidence has hinted that migrants from Southeast Asia could be among the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Madagascar. Now Science reports that Austronesians may have settled in Madagascar between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago. Led by archaeologist Alison Crowther of the University of Queensland, an international team of scientists collected more than 2,400 ancient crop samples from 20 archaeological sites on the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar, and the Comoro Islands, which are situated between Madagascar and the African coast. Radiocarbon dates of the charred seeds indicate that between A.D. 700 and 1200, crops such as pearl millet, cowpea, and sorghum were grown on the coast of East Africa, where Asian crops such as rice, mung bean, and cotton were rare. But the Asian crops were common on the Comoros Islands and on Madagascar. And although rice and mung bean were grown in India at the time, other common Indian crops were not found in Madagascar and the other islands. “We finally have a signal of this Austronesian expansion,” said Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. To read about an island 300 miles east of Madagascar, go to "Castaways."

Friday, May 27

Mobility in Germany’s Corded Ware Culture

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN—Karl-Göran Sjögren of Gothenburg University and his colleagues examined bones and teeth excavated from seven Corded Ware Culture sites, including two large cemeteries, in southern Germany. The Corded Ware Culture, found throughout Europe between 2800 and 2200 B.C., is noted for its burial of the dead in large burial mounds and pottery ornamented with corded textures. According to a UPI report, carbon dating and isotopic analysis of the remains in the study revealed that Corded Ware people subsisted in a variety of ways within isolated locations. At one cemetery, more than 40 percent of the remains were identified as non-local. Sjögren thinks that women in particular may have moved away from their birth villages to marry, taking their food preferences with them. “We interpret this as indicating a pattern of female exogamy, involving different groups with differing economic strategies, and suggesting a complex pattern of social exchange and economic diversity in Late Neolithic Europe,” he said. For more on archaeology in Germany, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Wet Weather May Have Pushed Mongols Out of Hungary

ZÜRICH, SWITZERLAND—Spring flooding may have pushed the invading Mongols out of Hungary in 1242, according to a study of Eastern European climate history conducted by Nicola Di Cosmo of Princeton University and Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. Tree-ring data from northern Scandinavia, the Polar Ural, the Romanian Carpathians, the Austrian Alps, and the Russian Altai suggests that in 1242, southern Poland, the Czech Republic, western Slovakia, northwestern Hungary, and eastern Austria experienced a cold and snowy winter that was followed by an exceptionally wet spring. Di Cosmo told Live Science that the Mongol commanders, who had brought at least 130,000 troops and perhaps 65,000 horses into the region, might have been bogged down in pastures that had turned into muddy marshes. That could account for their sudden retreat through the Carpathian foothills and other elevated areas. “This is one of the very few cases in which we can identify a minor climatic change on just one winter and link it to a particularly important historical event,” Di Cosmo explained. For more, go to "Mongol Fashion Statement."

People Could Have Pulled Bluestones to Stonehenge

LONDON, ENGLAND—University College London archaeology student Barney Harris and a team of volunteers attempted to drag a 1.1-ton bluestone, lashed to a sycamore sleigh, on a track made of silver birch logs. Their goal was to see how much effort might have been required for Neolithic Britons to move bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales to Stonehenge. Harris thought it would take at least 15 people to transport the heavy load, but he found that ten people were able to pull the stone some ten feet every five seconds, or potentially faster than one mile per hour. The experiment suggests that a group of just 20 Neolithic Britons may have been able to convey a two-ton bluestone over the 140 mile trip. “It’s true that we did the experiment on flat ground, and there would have been steep slopes to navigate when going through the Preseli Mountains, but actually this kind of system works well on rough terrain,” Harris said in a report in The Telegraph. Harris and his team will take the data from the experiment and calculate how long it might have taken to move all of the bluestones to Stonehenge. For more, go to "Quarrying Stonehenge."

Paleolithic Paintings Found in Northern Spain

ATXURRA, SPAIN—The Local reports that archaeologist Diego Garate has found at least 70 paintings of bison, horses, and goats in Spain’s Atxurra caves at a depth of nearly 1,000 feet. Garate says the hunting scenes, spread over 14 panels, are between 12,000 and 14,000 years old. “I have been searching the caves of the Basque Country for ten years and have discovered lots of new caves but none as important as Atxurra,” he said. “It could very well be the cave with the most animal figures in the Basque Country.” One of the images is thought to depict a bison pierced by more than 20 spears. Charcoal and flint tools have also been found in the caves. For more, go to "The First Artists."

Thursday, May 26

Phoenician DNA Sequenced

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA—Scientists have completely mapped the genome of the "Young Man of Byrsa,” a Phoenician who lived 2,500 years ago, and whose remains were discovered outside Carthage in 1994, reports the Independent. The Phoenicians were an influential seafaring people who originated in Lebanon around 1500 B.C. and then colonized much of the Mediterranean, including what is now Tunisia, where they founded Carthage. The team, co-led by University of Otago geneticist Lisa Matisoo-Smith, found that the man had a rare mitochondrial haplogroup that is thought to have originated 20,000 to 25,000 years ago among European hunter-gatherer populations. His DNA most closely matched that of a modern-day Portuguese person, and the researchers speculate that the Young Man of Byrsa's maternal ancestry lay somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula, not in North Africa or the Near East, as might have been expected. The team hopes further research on Phoenician DNA will reveal more about ancient migration and exchange patterns. To read more about Phoenicians, go to “History’s 10 Greatest Wrecks: Bajo de la Campagna.” 

Neanderthal Structures in French Cave Studied

AVEYRON VALLEY, FRANCE—A number of semicircular walls built from stalagmites by Neanderthals deep in a cave in southwestern France have been dated to around 176,000 years old, making them among the world’s oldest constructions, according to a report in Nature News. The six structures, first discovered in Bruniquel Cave in the early 1990s, are made of around 400 large stalagmite pieces broken from the cave floor and arranged in semi-circles as large as 22 feet wide. They lie around a fifth of a mile from the cave’s entrance and getting to them requires navigating a narrow approach. Researchers believe that at one time the pieces were stacked up to create walls. “It’s obvious when you see it, that it’s not natural,” said Dominique Genty of the Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace. Analysis of calcite that has accumulated on the stalagmites since they were broken established that the structures date to between 174,400 and 178,600 years ago. No remains of early humans, stone tools, or signs of occupation have been found, but researchers have concluded that Neanderthals made the structures as no other hominins are known to have been present in the area at the time. For more, go to “Decoding Neanderthal Genetics.”

Scanning Prehistoric Alpine Art

ABRI FARAVEL, FRANCE—In a small rock shelter in the French Alps some 7,000 feet above sea level, archaeologists have used laser scans to create virtual models of the highest rock art depictions of animals ever discovered in Europe, reports the Yorkshire Post. The shelter was in regular use beginning in the Mesolithic period, about 10,000 years ago, and was at least occasionally occupied up to the medieval period. The team, led by University of York archaeologist Kevin Walsh, has found Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools at the site, along with Iron Age pottery, a Roman-era brooch, and medieval metal objects. Nearby the cave they discovered Bronze Age stone dwellings and animal enclosures. While direct dating of the paintings themselves is impossible, they seem to be analogous to art made during the Neolithic at lower altitudes, and appear to depict a deer hunting scene. In addition to scanning the paintings, the team scanned the shelter itself and the surrounding landscape. “This is the only example of virtual models, including a scan of the art, done at high altitude in the Alps and probably the highest virtual model of an archaeological landscape in Europe,” said Walsh. To read more about scanning archaeological sites, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

19th-Century Ship Found Underground in Boston

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—The remains of a ship were recently discovered underground at a construction site in Boston’s Seaport District. Over the past few days, Boston’s city archaeologist, Joe Bagley, and colleagues have scrambled to learn as much about it as possible before construction resumes. Based on the ship’s nails, they have determined that it dates to the mid-to-late nineteenth century. “It’s not terribly old,” Bagley told, “but it’s part of the maritime history of Boston either way.” The area where the approximately 50-foot-long ship was found consisted of mudflats that were filled in 1880 to create more buildable land. It is unclear whether the ship was deliberately sunk or left in place after crashing or running aground. There is evidence of a fire on board, though it could have occurred while the ship sank or later, to reduce the size of the wreckage. Inside the ship, the archaeologists have found dozens of barrels of lime, which may have been transported from Maine for use in concrete or to make paper. To read in-depth about a ship found underground in Manhattan, go to “The Hidden History of New York's Harbor.”