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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, July 07

Imperial Roman Army Camp Excavated in Israel

MEGIDDO, ISRAEL—The second and third century A.D. permanent headquarters of Rome’s Sixth Legion Ferrata have been discovered at the site of Legio, located near Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. One of two imperial legions sent to the region, the Sixth Legion Ferrata helped keep order in Galilee during the Bar Kochba Revolt between A.D. 132 and 135. Conducted by the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research as part of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, the excavations have uncovered ceramic roofing tiles marked with the sign of the Sixth Ironclad Legion, clay pipes, sewer channels, streets, and several buildings, including one that may have been the residence of the commander. “We’re talking about a large camp, an imperial camp, one of about 5,000 soldiers, about 984 feet by 1,640 feet,” Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority told The Times of Israel. “Our entire understanding about Roman military architecture, and especially Roman legionary bases for this particular period…comes from the western empire—Germany, Britain, and Gaul,” added Matthew J. Adams of the Albright Institute. To read more about Roman military fortifications, go to "Rome's Earliest Fort."

Ancient Monkey Skull Hints at Primate Brain Complexity

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—For the first time, scientists have visualized the brain within a 15 million-year-old monkey skull that was discovered in 1997 on an island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria. Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Lauren Gonzales of Duke University used high resolution x-ray imaging and created a 3-D computer model of Victoriapithecus’s tiny brain, and determined that it was more complex than they had expected. The brain has numerous wrinkles and folds, and its olfactory bulb is three times larger than anticipated. “It probably had a better sense of smell than many monkeys and apes living today,” Gonzales said in a press release. It had been thought that early primate brains evolved to be larger first and then more folded and complex. “But this study is some of the hardest proof that in monkeys, the order of events was reversed—complexity came first and bigger brains came later,” she said. 

Genetic Study Examines Sense of Smell in Early Humans

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—A team of scientists from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the University of Manchester examined DNA samples from more than 2,200 people from 43 populations around the world and found that different populations tend to have different gene sequences for OR7D4, a receptor on human smell cells that allows people to detect androstenone, a smell produced by pigs and found in boar meat. Androstenone makes the pork from uncastrated boars taste unpleasant to people who can smell it. Statistical analysis of the frequencies of the different forms of the gene in different populations suggests that it might have been subject to natural selection. Populations from Africa tend to be able to smell androstenone, suggesting that human ancestors were able to as well. Pigs were originally domesticated in Asia, where many people now have a reduced sensitivity to androstenone. The team, led by Kara Hoover of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also examined DNA for OR7D4 from Neanderthal and Denisovans from Siberia. Neanderthals would have been able to smell androstenone, but Denisovans had a unique mutation that changed the structure of the OR7D4 receptor. Hiroaki Matsunami of Duke University found that the Denisovan sense of smell was not changed by this mutation, however, and that these early humans would have been able to smell the compound. For more on Neanderthals and Denisovans, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Unusual Neolithic Burials Unearthed in Egypt

POZNAŃ, POLAND—At a cemetery in Gebel Ramlah, an area of Egypt’s Western Desert near the border of Sudan, archaeologists led by Jacek Kabaciński of the Polish Academy of Sciences unearthed the 6,500-year-old burials of 60 adults. One of the graves contained the remains of two individuals. Deliberate cuts on the femur, which have not been seen in other Neolithic burials in North Africa, were found on one of these skeletons. Another unusual grave had been lined with stone slabs, and in a third burial, the team found the remains of a man whose body had been covered with pottery fragments, stones, and lumps of red dye. A fragment of a Dorcas gazelle skull with horns found near his head may have been a ceremonial headdress. This skeleton also showed signs of abnormal bone adhesions and fractures. According to a report in Science & Scholarship in Poland, Kabaciński and his team think this man may have performed rites associated with hunting. To read more about this period, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Monday, July 06

Birch-Bark Coffin Discovered in Russia’s Zeleny Yar

SALEKHARD, RUSSIA—A birch-bark coffin has been removed from Zeleny Yar, a medieval site on the edge of the Siberian Arctic. Similar burials from the site have contained mummified remains. “The mummification was natural. It was a combination of factors: the bodies were overlain with copper sheets, parts of copper kettles, and together with the permafrost, this it gave the preserving effect,” Alexander Gusev of the Research Center for the Study of the Arctic told The Siberian Times. Five of the mummies from the site that had been shrouded in copper had also been buried with reindeer, beaver, wolverine, or bear furs. One man had also been wearing a head ornament in the shape of a bear and had been buried with an iron hatchet. Metal has been detected within the newly discovered birch bark coffin, thought to date to the twelfth or thirteenth century. “It follows the contours of the human body. If there is really a mummy, the head and skull are likely to be in good condition. We think it is a child, maybe a teenager. The find is now in Salekhard, in the Shemanovsky Museum, in a special freezer,” Gusev added. His team will open the “cocoon” later this month. To read more about archaeology in Siberia, go to "Fortress of Solitude."

American Artifacts From WW II Found on Salisbury Plain

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A team from Wessex Archaeology has found items left by American soldiers who trained for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on Salisbury Plain—usually noted for Stonehenge and other prehistoric archaeological sites. The artifacts include spoons and plates, cans of cooking oil, 16 intact containers of sunscreen, packages of bacon and lard, and bottles of sauce. “The state of preservation of the provisions shows how well made they were,” a spokesperson for Wessex Archaeology told BBC News. “It’s evidence of US military presence on Salisbury Plain and the surrounding area. Sadly, there were no contents left in the tins of sliced bacon.” The artifacts will be housed in the Salisbury Museum. To read more, go to "The Archaeology of World War II."

Square Slave Quarters Unearthed at Maryland Plantation

CROWNSVILLE, MARLYAND—While looking for traces of French troops thought to have camped at Belvoir, an eighteenth-century plantation, during the Revolutionary War, archaeologists uncovered a 34-by-34-foot structure with a stone foundation and brick walls and floors that, according to the 1798 tax roll, housed slaves close to the brick plantation house. “There was a large front room with a kitchen hearth for cooking, meals, and socializing. In the rear were two rooms, perhaps with bunk beds in one and a family’s quarters in another,” Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the State Highway Administration, told The Capital Gazette. The large kitchen hearth, where meals may have been prepared for the plantation house, shared a chimney with two smaller hearths, one in each of the back rooms. Similar buildings have been found listed in historic documents, but this is the first time that a square, stone and brick structure has been unearthed in the Chesapeake. The tax roll also lists a log structure on the property that may have housed field laborers. To read more about the archaeology of slavery, go to "Free Before Emancipation." 

New Thoughts on the Bronze Age Diet in the Iberian Peninsula

GRANADA, SPAIN—Analysis of human remains from a burial site at Cova do Santo in northwestern Spain suggests that the diet eaten by the local residents between 1800 and 1600 B.C. consisted mostly of plant food. Stable isotopes from the bone collagen of at least 14 men, women, and children indicate that they ate little meat or fish, despite living near the Sil River. “There are no significant differences between individuals in terms of diet, so access to food resources must have been similar, regardless of sex or age,” Olalla López-Costas of the University of Granada said in a press release. López-Costas and her team think that the Bronze Age diet in northwestern Iberia may have included millet earlier than had been previously thought, although they cannot confirm it. Millet crops “give a high yield in a short time, which probably helped people become more sedentary and the excess of production could have contributed to the construction of a social hierarchy,” she said. To read more about the period, go to "Bronze Age Palace & Royal Burial Unearthed in Spain."

Friday, July 03

Second "Kamikaze" Shipwreck Discovered

MATSURRA, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that underwater archaeologists surveying the waters off the island of Takashima have located the remains a second shipwreck that was part of one of the two 13th-century Mongol invasions that were destroyed by the “divine wind” (Kamikaze) typhoons. Artifacts from the second invasion, in 1281, have been found around Takashima Island, and a vessel from that fleet was discovered in 2011. The recently discovered ship is estimated to have been 65 feet long and around 20 feet wide and was carrying 13th-century Chinese ceramics, as well as ironware that positively identified it as a ship belonging to one of the two doomed Mongol fleets. “We have successfully confirmed the two ships from the Mongolian invasion, and further research on them is expected to lead to the discovery of even more sunken Mongolian ships,” said University of the Ryukyus archaeologist Yoshifumi Ikeda. To read more about some of the most important underwater discoveries made by archaeologists, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Ancient Bobkitten Burial Identified

SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS—In the 1980s, archaeologists excavating a Hopewell Culture (ca. 100 B.C.–A.D. 400) burial mound 50 miles north of St. Louis found the remains of 22 adults buried in a ring around an infant. They also discovered the skeleton of a small animal, which they assumed was a puppy, buried with a necklace made of marine shells and bear teeth. The Hopewell people were known to bury dogs in village sites, so the discovery did not strike the team as unusual. But more recently, Max Planck Institute zooarchaeologist Angela Perri, a specialist in canine burials, examined the remains and made a startling discovery. "As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy,” Perri told Science. “It was a cat of some kind.” She determined the remains belonged to a bobcat that was no more than seven months old when it died and found no marks on the bones that would suggest it had been sacrificed. “It shocked me to my toes,” says the Illinois State Archaeological Survey's Kenneth Farnsworth. “I’ve never seen anything like it in almost 70 excavated mounds. Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done. I’d give anything to know why.” To read more about this period, go to "Who Were the Hopewell?"