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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, November 10

Beer Brewed With 18th-Century Yeast

TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that researchers led by David Thurrowgood of the Queen Victoria Museum brewed beer with yeast recovered from bottles found in an eighteenth-century shipwreck using a traditional English recipe. The bottled beer, along with bottles of wine, brandy, gin, and casks of cheaper beer, came from the Sydney Cove, a British trading ship that wrecked near the island of Tasmania in 1797 while traveling from Calcutta to the prison colony at Port Jackson, now known as the city of Sydney. Some of the survivors eventually tried to complete the trip to the prison colony, but only three of the 17 ever made it. “They were the first Europeans to do that trek, so in terms of early colonial history, it was an enormous trip and tale of survival—I don’t know how they did it,” Thurrowgood said. The mild, sweet-tasting beverage may be similar to a celebrated eighteenth-century English beer. Thurrowgood thinks the original may have been exported from England for military officers stationed at Port Jackson. He added that the live yeast and the several species of bacteria found in the beer bottles could provide scientists with more information about the microorganisms in pre-industrial diets. To read about an ancient Chinese beer recipe, go to “World Roundup.”

New Thoughts on the Demise of Greenland’s Norse Settlements

TASILIKULOOQ, GREENLAND—Science Magazine reports that the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization has analyzed data on the settlement patterns, diet, and landscape of the Norse living in Greenland from the eleventh century to the mid-fifteenth century, when they disappeared. It had been thought that the Norse were primarily farmers whose crops and livestock failed to support them when the Little Ice Age set in, but new evidence suggests that the Norse spread to Iceland and Greenland in the pursuit of walrus ivory, which was highly valued in medieval Europe. Analysis of human remains from Norse cemeteries indicates that the settlers relied more heavily on marine animals for food as temperatures fell and it became harder to farm, even though pollen and soil data show that the settlers were more skilled in farming techniques such as irrigation, fertilizing, and allowing fields to rest than had been previously thought. Climate change and stormy seas would have made hunting and the ivory trade more difficult, too. “We used to think of Norse as farmers who hunted,” explained Thomas McGovern of Hunter College. “Now, we consider them hunters who farmed.” For more, go to “Vikings, Worms, and Emphysema.”

Shakespeare’s Curtain Theater Excavated

LONDON, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that an excavation at the Curtain Theater by researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology has uncovered a rectangular stage some 45 feet long that was built over a passageway with doors at either end. It had been thought that the early Elizabethan theater had a polygonal structure, but the excavation has revealed that the building was rectangular in shape, and that it had timber galleries and a courtyard of compacted gravel built for theater goers. “The question is now whether Shakespeare and other playwrights were writing plays specifically for this kind of stage—which would have required a completely different style of interaction compared to a thrust stage with the audience on three sides,” said senior archaeologist Heather Knight. The excavation also revealed that the theater was purpose-built behind a structure that faced Curtain Road. Fragments of green-glazed money boxes that held entrance fees have been found. These boxes were smashed in a “box office,” where the money was counted. Glass beads and pins that may have come from the actors’ costumes were recovered, along with drinking vessels and clay pipes. For more, go to “Richard III’s Last Act.”

Wednesday, November 09

Genetic Study Targets Neanderthal Material in Modern Humans

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—Live Science reports that evolutionary biologist Ivan Juric of the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues want to know why modern humans carry so few Neanderthal genes. A large population of modern humans and a small Neanderthal population are thought to have interbred thousands of years ago, but very little Neanderthal DNA has survived in the modern human genome. It had been suggested that many of the offspring of Neanderthals and modern humans failed to thrive, or were infertile. Juric’s team developed a computer model to simulate the effects of natural selection on the distance between segments of Neanderthal DNA and modern human genes, since less Neanderthal DNA has been found in regions close to modern human genes than in the inactive areas between genes. The results of the simulation suggests that Neanderthal gene variants are being slowly removed by natural selection. Now Juric wants to know which gene variants contributed by extinct human relatives have been deleted from the modern human genome. “Once we know more about the genes involved, we can ask what those genes do and what traits they are involved with in modern humans,” he said. “Then, we might be able to make some guesses about the traits of those early human-Neanderthal hybrids.” For more, go to “Decoding Neanderthal Genetics.”

Remains of Shackled Man Found in Etruscan Tomb

MILAN, ITALY—Seeker reports that the remains of a shackled man have been found in a 2,500-year-old Etruscan necropolis made up of otherwise “normal” burials in central Tuscany. The necropolis was located near the seaside settlement of Populonia, noted for iron processing in antiquity. The man, who was between 20 and 30 years old at the time of death, may have been a slave who worked in maritime activities, or in the local iron mines. He was bound with irons on his legs, and he wore a heavy iron collar around his neck. “We found a black spot under the nape, most likely what remained of a wood object which was likely connected to the iron collar,” said Giorgio Baratti of the University of Milan. He thinks the man’s neck and leg shackles were connected with ropes or leather straps. An iron ring found on one of his left fingers may also have been connected to the shackles. Analysis of the bones could reveal more information about the man, including where he had been born. To read in-depth about an Etruscan site, go to “The Tomb of the Silver Hands.”

Dogs May Have Adapted to Farmers’ Starchy Diets

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Science Magazine reports that paleogeneticist Morgane Ollivier of the Ecole Normale Supéieure de Lyon, evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University, and their colleagues examined DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of wolves and dogs whose remains were unearthed at Neolithic-era archaeological sites in Eurasia. Dogs are thought to have been domesticated by hunter-gatherers more than 15,000 years ago. The researchers found that as early as 7,000 years ago, at a time when humans were beginning to farm wheat and millet, the dogs had four to 30 copies of a gene involved in the digestion of starch, while wolves usually have just two. “This [expansion] probably constituted an important advantage for dogs feeding on human leftovers,” Ollivier said. He added that the number of copies of the starch gene carried by humans also increased at this time. To read in-depth about dogs and archaeology, go to “More Than Man's Best Friend.”

Study Suggests Greenland’s Early Settlers Hunted Whales

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—The International Business Times reports that scientists from the University of Copenhagen tested sediments at archaeological sites in Greenland dating back 4,000 years for DNA clues to what the island's first inhabitants ate. The study suggests that bowhead whales and other large mammals made up much of the diet of the Saqqaq culture. But whale bones have not been found at Saqqaq archaeological sites, probably because pieces of meat and blubber, rather than the entire carcass of the animal, were transported from the shore to the settlement. It had been previously thought that the people of the Thule culture were the first to hunt and eat whales between 600 and 800 years ago. For more on on archaeology in the area, go to “Letter from Norway: The Big Melt.”

Tuesday, November 08

Viking Toolbox Uncovered in Denmark

ZEALAND, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports that a 1,000-year-old toolbox containing 14 iron tools was discovered at Borgring, a Viking ring fortress, by metal detectorists. “The toolbox is the first direct indication of life that we’ve found around the fortress,” said archaeologist Nanna Holm. The tools are thought to have been kept in a wooden box near the east gate of the fortress, which was damaged by fire. “It looks like the fire was brought under control before it spread, and afterwards they laid two layers of clay inside the gate,” Holm explained. “In each layer we find a fireplace, and we found the toolbox in the youngest layer.” The evidence also suggests that the gate eventually collapsed, burying the toolbox. Such valuable iron was usually melted down and reused, making the tools, including spoon drills, a drawplate for making thin wire, a piece of chain, and a clink nail, a rare discovery. For more, go to “The First Vikings.”

Ancient Egyptian Causeway Discovered in Aswan

ASWAN, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that a causeway leading to the three-room tomb of Sarenput I has been found at the Qubbet El-Hawa necropolis by a team of archaeologists from the University of Birmingham and the Egypt Exploration Society. Sarenput I was the provincial governor of Aswan’s Elephantine Island during the Middle Kingdom, in addition to holding other posts in service to King Senusert I of the 12th Dynasty. The causeway, which measures more than 400 feet long, is decorated with engravings. One of the images depicts a group of men pulling a bull and presenting it as an offering to the deceased governor. A pit in the causeway has yielded containers that may have been used as canopic jars. According to Hani Abul Azm, head of the central administration of Upper Egypt, their contents will be studied. To read in-depth about recent excavations in Egypt, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Clues to Religious Conversion of Enslaved People Unearthed

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND—A team led by Mark P. Leone of the University of Maryland says that a set of circular-shaped objects unearthed at the site of a former Maryland plantation may have held religious significance to African-Americans, according to a report in The New York Times. One of the objects, which were found in a house, may reflect a cosmogram, or a circle with an X inside of it that was a traditional religious symbols from the BaKongo belief system of West Central Africa. Christian preachers are thought to have repurposed the cosmogram as Ezekiel’s blazing chariot wheel, described in the Old Testament as a wheel inside a wheel, in their efforts to convert enslaved people who originated from West Central Africa. The team members say that this is the first time that these circle images have been found together. “Christianity had not erased traditional African spirit practices,” Leone said. “It had merged with them to form a potent blend that still thrives today.” To read in-depth about archaeology at another Maryland plantation, go to "Letter From Maryland: Belvoir's Legacy."

1,000-Year-Old Rock Art Found in India

ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA—The Hindu reports that a rock art site thought to date to the tenth century A.D. has been found near the southeastern coast of India by a team led by Sivakumar Challa of Yogi Vemana University. The researchers had been investigating a megalithic site in the area when they found the artwork. The drawings had been made with white pigment, and depict a woman warrior wearing head gear and shoes, and holding a lance with both hands. She is carrying two daggers, on each side of her waist. A horse stands near her. Other images include circle and floral designs, a parrot, and an elephant. To read more about archaeology in southern India, go to "India's Village of the Dead." 

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