Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 31

New Technique Could Cut Dating Wait Times

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—The electronic engineering and electronics departments at The University of Liverpool are developing a new carbon-dating technique that could provide results for bones in just two days, at a lower cost than current methods, which can take more than six weeks. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens has provided the university with samples of animal bones that have already been dated for analysis with the prototype technology, a form of quadruple mass spectrometer (QMS). The unit will be based at the museum next year, when it reopens after extensive renovations, thanks to funding from Arts Council England. “The potential of this new technique is incalculable. Archaeologists will, for the first time, be able to make decisions on site and within days of sampling,” Frank Hargrave, director of Norton Priory, told The Liverpool Echo. “It will be a challenge to develop a portable instrument to achieve the required performance, but thanks to this funding we are in a strong position to make a real attempt,” added Steve Taylor, leader of the project. To read about a similar innovation, see "Nondestructive Radiocarbon Dating."

“The Red Lady” of Spain

  ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—The 18,700-year-old bones of a woman whose remains were found in northern Spain’s El Mirón Cave is the first Magdalenian burial to be found in the Iberian Peninsula, according to Lawrence Straus of the University of New Mexico and Manuel González Morales of the University of Cantabria. They discovered the grave behind a block of engraved limestone that had fallen from the ceiling of the cave. “The lines seem to be sort of random, but there is a motif that is a triangle—repeated lines that make a V-shape. What is being represented, at least by some of these lines, might be a female person. Conceivably, this block serves as some kind of marker,” Straus told New Scientist. They first glimpsed a jaw and a tibia covered in ochre, and later recovered more than 100 of the woman’s bones, which had been placed in the small space after her body had decomposed. A carnivore’s teeth marks on the tibia may account for the missing skull and long bones. Dubbed “The Red Lady,” the woman was between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death, and she ate ibex, red deer, fish, mushrooms, fungi, and seeds. The ochre on her bones “is a color that in their lives must have been very spectacular,” Straus added. To read about a spectacular piece of Paleolithic art, see "A New Life for Lion Man."

Trolley Rails Unearthed Near Former Factories

ONTARIO, CANADA—Rail ties that were part of a trolley network 100 years ago were uncovered by construction crews in the Waterloo-Kitchener area. The first rail cars on the Berlin & Waterloo Street Railway were pulled by horses, followed by electrified cars in 1895. “Running a trolley line down King Street would have been able to give working class people in those areas a chance to get to work, without having to worry about cars, without having to worry about horses,” historian Geoff Hayes of the University of Waterloo told CBC News. The railway went out of service in 1946 as cars gained in popularity. A new light rail system is now under construction to carry workers to the new businesses in the area. To read about a similar discovery, see "Trains in the Round."

Spanish Armada Cannonball Found on Irish Beach

COUNTY SLIGO, IRELAND—A cannonball thought to have come from the ill-fated Spanish Armada has washed up on a beach in Ireland’s County Sligo. “We’ve had a number of items discovered recently because of the winter storms with them washing up then on the spring tides,” Dónal Gilroy, who found the cannonball while walking on the beach, told The Journal. Gilroy is chair of the Grange Armada Development Association. “It would have come from a smaller swivel cannon,” he added. Three of the ships of the fleet that attempted to invade England were driven into Donegal Bay by bad weather on September 21, 1588, where they wrecked four days later after putting down anchor. More than 1,000 people are thought to have died when the ships, La Lavia, La Juliana, and Santa Maria de Vision were lost. To read more about underwater discoveries, see "History's 10 Greatest Shipwrecks." 

Monday, March 30

Intact Horse’s Skeleton Found at Roman Site

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The skeleton of a horse estimated to have died 2,000 years ago has been unearthed at the construction site of a new biomedical campus. The almost complete skeleton shows that the horse had suffered a broken leg that had begun to heal before the animal died. “It was in a pit around it which we think were dug for quarrying gravel in the Roman period. The other signs were fragments of pottery and fragments of other animals. It was probably just on the edge of a settlement, there is certainly a Roman settlement to the north of it and it’s in the general area of Roman activity,” Alison Dickens of the Cambridge Archaeology Unit told Cambridge News. She suspects that the horse died or had to be put down after a “specific incident,” since it is unusual to find the intact remains of an animal. “It is a fascinating discovery. The horse may have been just a workhorse for the quarries, which supplied construction materials for the nearby Roman settlement, or it might have been someone’s prize thoroughbred; we won’t know until tests are done,” commented Keith McNeil, chief executive of Cambridge University Hospitals. To read in-depth about excavations at one of the most important ancient Roman sites, see "Rome's Imperial Port."

5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Beer Vessels Unearthed In Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Fragments of pottery basins used by Egyptians to make beer 5,000 years ago have been unearthed at a construction site in central Tel Aviv. Traces of barley have been found on similar vessels from other sites. Tests should reveal if the containers had been carried from Egypt, or if they had been made locally in the Egyptian style. “This is also the northernmost evidence we have of an Egyptian presence in the Early Bronze Age I,” Diego Barkan, director of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Live Science. “Until now, we were only aware of an Egyptian presence in the northern Negev and southern coastal plain, whereby the northernmost point of Egyptian occupation occurred in Azor.” The excavation also uncovered 17 pits used for agricultural storage during the early Bronze Age, and a 6,000-year-old copper dagger and flint. To read about Egyptian animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."

1,000-Year-Old Salve Recipe Kills MRSA Cultures

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—A ninth-century Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections has been found to kill the modern-day superbug MRSA and disrupt naturally antibiotic-resistant biofilms in tests conducted by researchers from The University of Nottingham and Texas Tech University. Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee enlisted the microbiologists who recreated the potion, which includes ingredients such as onion, garlic, and part of a cow’s stomach brewed in a copper vessel. The recipe is from Bald’s Leechbook, a volume in the British Library that is thought to be one of the earliest-known books of medical advice and medicines. “We thought that Bald’s eye salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab—copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was,” Freya Harrison said in a press release. Steve Diggle adds that people may have been carrying out detailed scientific studies before bacteria were even discovered in order to produce such effective remedies. To read in-depth about Anglo-Saxon archaeology, see "The Kings of Kent."

Medieval Devotional Panel Displayed

LONDON, ENGLAND—A fourteenth-century devotional panel discovered in 2000 by archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology will go on display for the first time at the Museum of London. Discovered in the north bank of the Thames, along with pilgrim badges, shoes, and a leather knife sheath, the well-preserved metal panel depicts the life and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, a cousin of the unpopular King Edward II. Lancaster tried to curb the king’s power and was publicly beheaded for treason in 1322. Within six weeks of his death, Londonist reports that miracles were being attributed to Lancaster. The panel may have been associated with a shrine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he was venerated. To read more about archaeology in London, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

Friday, March 27

Medieval Woman’s Remains Unearthed in Wales

NEFYN, WALES—A cist grave containing a woman’s skeleton has been unearthed at a church in North Wales. The site is thought to have been part of a medieval monastic settlement, based upon the discovery of a wall that is missing from early maps of the area. The woman in the grave, which had been covered with a large, flat stone, had been in her 60s and suffered from some arthritis when she died sometime between A.D. 1180 and 1250. Human remains from this period are rare in Wales because of the acidity of the soil. “This type of grave is generally believed to be of an early medieval date, although due to the lack of surviving skeletal remains this hypothesis often goes untested,” Catherine Rees of CR Archaeology told Culture 24. “She would have lived through some very turbulent times in Welsh history and could have lived through the rise to power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or as he is more well known, Llywelyn the Great, as he consolidated north and much of Wales under his control. She may have also been alive when the famous medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, stayed at Nefyn in 1188 as part of a campaign to raise support for the third crusade,” she added. Studies of the isotopes in the woman’s teeth could reveal if she grew up in the area. She may have been a local resident, or she may have been a pilgrim on the route to the Christian site of Bardsey Island. To read about a similar discovery, see "Cathedral Grave May Have Belonged to a Medieval Knight."

Neolithic Bones in Italy’s Scaloria Cave Were Defleshed

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The bones of at least 22 Neolithic people, many of them children, have been identified in Italy’s Scaloria Cave. The cave, located in southeastern Italy, is filled with stalactites and offers “the first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead,” John Robb of the University of Cambridge told Science Magazine. The human bones had been randomly mixed with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools. Robb’s new study shows that few whole human skeletons had been deposited in the cave, and the bones only had light cut marks on them. This suggests that the selected bones may have been put in the cave as much as a year after death, since only residual muscle tissue had to be removed from them. Robb and his international team of scientists think that the defleshing process could have been part of a long, multistage burial plan that ended when the cleaned, stone-like bones were put in the cave along with other discarded items. The cave’s stone-forming, dripping water and stalactites may have had special spiritual power for the Neolithic Italians. To read about an unusual and poignant Neolithic burial in Italy, see "Eternal Embrace." 

Neanderthal Ear Bones Differed From Modern Humans’

VIZCAYA, SPAIN—A new study of the remains of a two-year-old child discovered in the 1970s in France have shed new light on Neanderthal anatomy. Among the fossils were a very complete left temporal bone and a complete stapes, or middle ear bone. Virtual reconstruction techniques allowed researchers from the University of the Basque Country to “extract” the tiny ear bone—the most complete one in the Neanderthal record—and study it. The team found significant anatomical differences between the Neanderthal stapes and those found in modern humans. "We do not yet know the relation between these morphological differences and hearing in the Neanderthals. This would constitute a new challenge for the future,” paleontologist Asier Gómez-Olivencia said in a press release. For more on our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Large, Comparative Study Suggests Diversity in Human Ancestors

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Fragmentary fossils, including tiny toes and ankle bones, have been used to estimate the height and body mass of early human ancestors living during the Pleistocene. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Tübingen who developed the new techniques, reveals that that early humans displayed a wide variety body sizes. “What we’re seeing is perhaps the beginning of a unique characteristic of our own species—the origins of diversity. It’s possible to interpret our findings as showing that there were either multiple species of early human, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo rudolfensis, or one highly diverse species. This fits well with recent cranial evidence for tremendous diversity among early members of the genus Homo,” Jay Stock of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. For example, groups living in South African caves averaged 4.8 feet tall, while some individuals from Kenya’s Koobi Fora region were almost six feet tall. “Basically every textbook on human evolution gives the perspective that one lineage of humans evolved larger bodies before spreading beyond Africa. But the evidence for this story about our origins and the dispersal out of Africa just no longer really fits. The first clues came from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia where fossils of really small-bodied people date to 1.77 million years ago. This has been known for several years, but we now know that consistently large body size evolved in Eastern Africa after 1.7 million years ago, in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya,” he explained. For more on the evolution of early humans, see "Our Tangled Ancestery."