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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, August 05

Soldier’s Skeletal Remains Found in France

CHAMPAGNE-ARDENNE, FRANCE—The skeletal remains of a young man killed in World War I has been unearthed by volunteers in northeastern France, according to a report in The Telegraph. The uniform and equipment in the grave identify the man as a German soldier. Archaeological work in the area has also uncovered a network of tunnels and trenches that were part of the far right front line during the fighting. The tunnels were filled in by farmers after the war.   

Penn Museum Identifies 6,500-Year-Old Skeleton

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—While digitizing records from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavation of Ur in the early twentieth century, project manager William Hafford from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology found lists of artifacts that were sent to the Penn Museum and the British Museum. Among the items sent to Philadelphia was a rare, 6,500-year-old intact skeleton that was listed as “Not Accounted For” in the museum’s collections as recently as 1990. Hafford and Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the museum’s Physical Anthropology Section, soon matched Woolley’s detailed notes and photographs with an unlabeled skeleton that had been stored in a coffin-like box in the basement for the past 85 years. The skeleton, once a well-muscled male, stood about 5’ 8” tall, and lived to about age 50. Woolley’s records show that the man had been buried in a deep layer of silt from a great flood that may have inspired epic tales of floods. The museum researchers have nicknamed the skeleton “Noah” with this in mind, but “Utnapishtin might be more appropriate, for he was named in the Gilgamesh epic as the man who survived the great flood,” Hafford told The Philadelphia Inquirer.   

Second Temple Period Bronze Coin Cache Unearthed in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A cache of bronze coins hidden in a ceramic box was discovered in the corner of a room in a Jewish settlement that was constructed in the first century B.C. and destroyed during the Great Revolt. “The hoard, which appears to have been buried several months prior to the fall of Jerusalem, provides us with a glimpse into the lives of Jews living on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the end of the rebellion,” Pablo Betzer and Eyal Marco of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Live Science. On one side, the 114 coins are stamped with a chalice and a Hebrew inscription that reads “To the Redemption of Zion.” The obverse bears the images of a lulav, or palm branch, and two etrogs, or yellow citron, and the Hebrew inscription “Year Four,” referring to the fourth year of the Great Revolt, around A.D. 69 or 70. The residents of the village were probably active in the rebellion against the Romans at the time, and in the later Bar Kokhba rebellion, between A.D. 132 and 135.  

New Analysis Suggests “Hobbit” Human Had Down Syndrome

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—An international team of researchers, including developmental geneticist Robert B. Eckhardt of Penn State, anatomist Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide, and Chinese geologist and paleoclimatologist Kenneth Hsü, has reexamined the evidence for classifying the fossils from Indonesia’s Liang Bua Cave as a new human species known as Homo floresiensis. The scientists point out that the bone fragments represent several individuals, but the skull and thighbones of only one individual have been recovered to date. The skull was reported to have an usually small cranial volume, and thighbones that would make the creature only 3.5 feet tall. Those unusual anatomical characteristics led to the assignment of a new species in 2004. This team’s new analysis, however, indicates that the original figures for the cranial volume and stature of Homo floresiensis were underestimated. “The difference is significant, and the revised figure falls in the range predicted for a modern human with Down syndrome from the same geographic region,” Eckhardt told Science Daily. The skull also exhibits craniofacial asymmetry, which is characteristic of the disorder, as are short thighbones and a reduction in height. 

Monday, August 04

Rare Golden Ornament Unearthed in England

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—A gold ornament, thought to be one of the earliest pieces of metalwork in the United Kingdom, was unearthed by four school-aged children during a community excavation at Kirkhaugh. The burial mound at the site was first excavated in 1935 by Herbert Maryon, who unearthed a matching ornament. The tresses, which date to 2,300 B.C., were probably worn in the hair, perhaps by someone who traveled to Britain in search of gold and copper. “It can be regarded as marking the very start of mineral exploitation in the North Pennines, leading in due course to Roman exploitation of lead and silver, and eventually to the vast post-medieval lead industry for which the region is internationally famous,” Paul Frodsham of Altogether Archaeology told The Express

Did Lower Testosterone Levels Correlate With Rise of Technology?

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—After measuring more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls, Robert Cieri of the University of Utah argues that human skulls changed in ways that indicate testosterone levels dropped some 50,000 years ago, at the same time that human culture blossomed. “The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament,” he told Science Daily. Heads became rounder without heavy brows, which can be traced to lower levels of testosterone, according to Steven Churchill, an anthropologist at Duke University who supervised Cieri’s undergraduate work. “If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they’d have to be tolerant of each other. The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another,” Cieri explained.   

Rescue Excavation Uncovers Royal Chinese Tombs

NANJING, CHINA—Live Science reports that archaeologists Li Zebin, Chen Gang, and Sheng Zhihan of Nanjing Museum recovered an intact jade coffin and more than 10,000 artifacts from a mausoleum consisting of three main tombs, 11 attendant tombs, two pits containing five life-sized chariots, and two weaponry pits holding iron swords, spearheads, crossbow triggers, halberds, knives, and more than 20 models of chariots. Burial chambers belonging to Liu Fei, a king of Jiangdu who died in 128 B.C., held artifacts made of gold, silver, bronze, jade, and lacquer. He had been buried with musical instruments such as chime bells, zither bridges, and jade tuning pegs. More than 100,000 banliang coins, lamps, and a kitchen stocked with food and cooking utensils had been left behind by looters, who took the king’s remains. “Near the coffins many jade pieces and fragments, originally parts of the jade burial suit, were discovered. These pieces also indicate that the inner coffin, originally lacquered and inlaid with jade plaques, was exquisitely manufactured,” the research team wrote in an article that appears in translation in the journal Chinese Archaeology. The intact jade coffin was recovered from an adjacent tomb. “Although the central chamber was looted, the structure of the jade coffin is still intact, which is the only undamaged jade coffin discovered in the history of Chinese archaeology,” they added. 

Friday, August 01

Archaeologist Finds Roman Bones on the Way Home

YORK, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that Mike Heyworth, the president of the Council for British Archaeology, made a startling discovery on his own street as he walked home from work. In a trench dug by a utilities company, he spied fragments of Roman bone, including a jaw with teeth, as well as pottery. The workers were digging not far from a Roman cemetery where the remains of 80 gladiators were found in 2010, but evidently they were not obligated to have an archaeologist to monitor their project. The work has been halted and an archaeologist will examine the trenches for more evidence of Roman remains and artifacts. 

Your Teeth Tell Your Story

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—The University of Florida reports that geologist George Kamenov has demonstrated that trace amounts of lead in human teeth can be used to figure out where people came from. The four isotopes that make up lead change according to the rocks, soil, and ores in each part of the world, and can be identified in teeth because tooth enamel, which develops during childhood, preserves the lead. “When you grow up, you record the signal of the local environment,” Kamenov explains. “If you move somewhere else, your isotope will be distinct from the local population.” Archaeologists can use the information from teeth to identify, for example, the presence of Europeans in the New World to trace human migrations.  

Terracotta Army Mystery Solved

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Since their discovery in 1974, China’s first emperor’s almost 2,000-year-old terracotta army has been the subject of almost continual study—but until now scientists have not been able to figure out how the colorful pigments which decorate the figures adhered to their surface. According to a report in the Science China Press, researchers at the College of Chemistry and Materials Science, Northwest University in Xi'an, have used sophisticated technology, including lasers and mass spectrometry, to isolate the substance, a challenge made all the harder, explain the researchers, because "following almost 22 centuries of storage under these conditions, the remaining pieces of original polychromy that have survived on the sculptures contain extremely small amounts of the binding media.” Now the substance has been identified as East Asian lacquer obtained from lacquer tree applied directly to the surfaces of the warriors in one or two layers as a base coat.