Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, February 24

Settlements Dating Back 12,000 Years Uncovered in England

LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND—Excavations in Lincolnshire associated with the construction of a new roadway have uncovered evidence of inhabitation stretching back to the Mesolithic period, according to a report in The Lincolnite. The finds, made by a team from Network Archaeology, include part of a Bronze Age cemetery, along with a settlement dating from the Iron Age to the Roman Age. Remains of a twelfth-century tower that may have been used as a beacon to warn against threats around the time of the First Battle of Lincoln in 1141 were also found. Additional discoveries include Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools, field systems, pottery kilns, a possible vineyard, and a medieval monastic grange. “The evidence we’ve seen so far suggests that small communities were already living in this area around 12,000 years ago and that it has been a favored spot for human activity ever since,” said Chris Taylor of Network Archaeology. To read about another recent discovery in England, go to “Something New for Sutton Hoo.”

Neanderthal Genes Still Influencing Health Today

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—New Scientist reports that a recent genetic study shows that Neanderthal DNA that survives in people of non-African descent is still controlling how some genes work. University of Washington geneticist Joshua Akey led a team that did a comprehensive DNA analysis of 214 Americans of European ancestry, and was able to isolate Neanderthal genes that were active in 52 kinds of tissue. In some cases, individuals had both a human and Neanderthal copy of a gene, and the team could compare the copies and find which variant controlled gene expression. They found that in the case of one gene that is a known risk factor for schizophrenia, the Neanderthal DNA controls the gene in such a way that it reduces the risk of developing the disease. “Strikingly, we find that Neanderthal sequences present in living individuals are not silent remnants of hybridization that occurred over 50,000 years ago, but have ongoing, widespread, and measurable impacts on gene activity,” says Akey. In other genes, such as ones that regulate brain activity, the influence of Neanderthal DNA is much less pronounced. To read more, go to “Should We Clone Neanderthals?

Temple to Near Eastern God Found on Corsica

  MARIANA, CORSICA—A team of French archaeologists excavating the Roman city of Mariana on the island of Corsica have discovered a Mithraeum, or a temple dedicated to the Indo-Iranian god Mithras, reports International Business Times. Mithraism was probably spread through the Roman Empire by Near Eastern merchants and soldiers around the same time Christianity was introduced. “This is a very rare and exciting find,” says archaeologist Philippe Chapon, who led the team. “It is the first time we find evidence that Mithraism was practiced in Corsica.” Inside the temple the team found fragments of a marble altar depicting Mithras sacrificing a bull, while a dog and a snake drink its blood. The archaeologists also found oil lamps, bronze bells, as well as the marble head of a woman. Some of the artifacts show signs of being damaged, perhaps after the temple was attacked by Christians, who built a church on the island around A.D. 400. To read more about Near Eastern dieties, go to “How to Pray to a Storm God.”

Sally Hemings’ Monticello Living Quarters Excavated

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA—Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the living space of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Thomas Jefferson is thought to have fathered six children, according to a report from NPR. The excavation is part of a renovation project at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation that aims to illuminate the lives of the enslaved people who lived there. The area where Hemings is thought to have lived was turned into a restroom in 1941. In the area, archaeologists have uncovered a fireplace, the original brick floor, and traces of several shelves. One of the goals of the project is to make the presence of enslaved people at the plantation more apparent to visitors. “There were no remnants of slavery that visitors could encounter,” said Christa Dierksheide, a historian at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. “And we're recreating or restoring spaces where enslaved families would've worked, would've lived, and made it the dynamic place that it was.” For more, go to “Mr. Jefferson’s Laboratory.”

Thursday, February 23

Skeletons Buried Hand in Hand Excavated in London

LONDON, ENGLAND—The skeletons of two men who appear to have been interred hand in hand were excavated from a plague burial ground in London during the construction of the Crossrail tunnel, according to a report from The Guardian. The men are thought to have been in their 40s and were buried in the early fifteenth century in a carefully dug double grave. They were placed in identical positions, with their heads angled to the right, and the left hand of one man clasping the right hand of the other. “One possible interpretation is that they were related in some way, for example by blood or marriage,” said archaeologist Sam Pfizenmaier, who led the excavation, noting that the positioning of their hands could be accidental. Both men are thought to have died in an outbreak of bubonic plague and were buried in the cemetery in Smithfield that opened in 1348 and ultimately held more than 50,000 bodies. DNA of several of the skeletons excavated from the cemetery has revealed exposure to Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. To read about another discovery as part of the Crossrail project, go to “A Tale of Two Railroads.”

WWII Bomb Defused in Greek City

THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Soldiers recently defused a World War II bomb in Greece’s second-largest city after evacuating tens of thousands of people from the area, according to a report from Agence France-Presse. The bomb was discovered during roadwork near a gas station. It took several hours to defuse the five-foot-long bomb, which was found to contain 375 pounds of explosives. According to Army chief of staff Nikos Phanios, the American-made bomb’s firing mechanism “was still in a very good shape, and this was what had us worried.” The bomb is thought to have been dropped by a British place as part of a campaign of strikes on the city’s railway station and port in 1943. Around 70,000 people were evacuated from a one-mile radius around the site before the bomb was defused. “A bomb of this size has never been found in an area this densely populated” in Greece, said regional security chief Apostolos Tzitzikostas. For more on handling unexploded ordnance from World War II, go to “Letter from the Marshall Islands: Defuzing the Past.”

Crouched Medieval Burials Found in Siberia

YAMAL PENINSULA, RUSSIA—Unusual burials of three women and a man dating to the eleventh century have been discovered in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, according to a report from The Siberian Times. All four bodies were found in a crouched position, which archaeologist Andrey Plekhanov said indicates they may have been ritually buried or possibly even sacrificed. All four also suffered from serious diseases or starvation, and the man was set on fire after death, a phenomenon not previously recorded in the area. “We can be sure that he did not die in the fire,” said Plekhanov. “His dead body was set to fire, but not a very strong one. His bones remained almost intact, the fire damage[d] mostly the soft tissues.” Among the artifacts found with the bodies were a bronze bracelet with a bear image, a knife with a bronze handle, a tanning scraper, bronze and silver pendants, a ring, and a facial mask made of animal skin. Fragments of pottery, possibly from the funeral meal, were also found. To read about another recent discovery in the area, go to “Siberian William Tell.”

Wednesday, February 22

Chaco Canyon’s Matrilineal Dynasty

  CHACO CANYON, NEW MEXICO—New research shows that a matrilineal dynasty may have controlled Pueblo Bonito, one of the massive masonry villages at the Ancestral Puebloan site of Chaco Canyon, reports Live Science.  A team of archaeologists and geneticists recently reanalyzed an elaborate two-layered burial crypt at the site that had been previously excavated. Such burial arrangements are rare in Puebloan cultures and the crypt is thought to have held high-ranking members of Chacoan society, who were buried there from A.D. 800 to 1120, when the site was abandoned. At the bottom of this crypt lay the graves of two men who had been buried with thousands of turquoise beads and other prestigious objects. Above them, separated by a wooden floor, were the graves of 12 people thought to have descended from the two men. A genomic study of the remains showed that nine of the people in the crypt all had identical mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers, suggesting power was inherited at Chaco through the maternal line. "For the first time, we're saying that one kinship group controlled Pueblo Bonito for more than 300 years," said University of Virginia archaeologist Steve Plog, who co-led the study. "This is the best evidence of a social hierarchy in the ancient Southwest." To read about how Pueblo culture endured Spanish rule, go to “The First American Revolution.”

Japanese Internment Camp on Oahu Excavated

HONOLULU, HAWAII—Archaeologists are excavating an area of the Honouliuli National Monument where a Japanese internment and POW camp once stood, according to a report from NBC News. William Belcher, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, and his students aim to preserve the site and map its features. In one area, they are looking for underground concrete slabs where they believe the camp’s mess hall once stood. The camp was one of more than a dozen World War II–era internment sites, and was used to detain prominent local Japanese residents and to house prisoners of war. Since Japanese people made up some 40 percent of Hawaii’s population, and many worked on plantations, only a small portion were interred at the camp. To read in-depth about underwater archaeology of the attack on Pearl Harbor, go to “December 7, 1941.”

Ancient Children’s Footprints Uncovered in Egypt

  CAIRO, EGYPT—Children’s footprints dating back more than 3,000 years have been found at Pi-Ramesse, which was the Egyptian capital during the reign of Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.), according to a report from Seeker. The prints were found near rare painting fragments in a mortar pit measuring around 8 by 26 feet. According to Henning Franzmeier, field director of the Qantir-Piramesse project, the footprints measure around 6 to 6.5 inches, which corresponds to an age of three to five. It is unclear whether the footprints were left by more than one child. “The differences in size are not big enough for us to clearly differentiate,” said Franzmeier. “And they are also not so well preserved that we could distinguish so far any other features of the feet.” It is also unclear why the children would have been in the area. Further excavation in the area and analysis of the footprints will be carried out in the project’s next field season. To read about another discovery in Egypt, go to “World’s Oldest Dress.”

A Bronze Age Male Migration

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA—Science reports that a new DNA study shows males belonging to a Bronze Age culture now known as the Yamnaya had a transformative impact on the European population. Prior to the Yamnaya migration, many prehistoric Europeans were descended from Neolithic farmers who migrated to Europe from Anatolia beginning around 9,000 years ago. Some 4,000 years later, the Yamnaya, herders who had mastered horseback riding and were likely speakers of Indo-European, left the Eurasian steppe and moved west into central Europe. To investigate the ratio of men to women who participated in these two migrations, Stanford University geneticists used a new statistical method to compare DNA from 20 skeletons belonging to people who lived after the arrival of Neolithic farmers and 16 who lived just after the Yamnaya migration. They found that equal numbers of men and women took part in the Neolithic population movement, but that there were some 10 men for every woman who participated in the Yamnaya migration. The finding is consistent with the theory that the Yamnaya who moved west were largely horse-mounted male warriors. To read more about the study of prehistoric Indo-European languages, go to “Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European.”