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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, August 31

Blood Flow May Have Fueled Hominid Brain Growth

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—Roger Seymour of the University of Adelaide and his colleagues in Australia and South Africa calculated the rate of blood flow to the brain in 12 species of hominins who lived over a span of three million years, according to a report in Popular Science. Seymour’s team based the rate of blood flow on the size of the two holes in the base of hominid skulls that allow arteries to reach the brain. They found that while brain size increased by about 350 percent, blood flow to the brain increased 600 percent. The scientists suggest that the increase in blood flow could have provided the evolving hominid brain with increasing levels of oxygen and nutrients. To read about research into the evolution of the human face, go to "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel." 

Traces of Domestic Grains Found on Hunter-Gather Teeth

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—NBC News reports that researchers led by Emanuela Cristiani of the University of Cambridge examined micro-fossils in the dental calculus of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who lived in central Europe some 8,600 years ago. She found evidence that they ate starches such as wheat, barley, millet, peas, and lentils. The wheat and barley granules were consistent with early domestic species found in early Neolithic communities in southeastern Europe. She thinks the grains may have been introduced to the inland foragers through social networks 400 years before they adopted domesticated animals and farming tools. It had been thought that the domesticated plants, animals, farming tools, pottery, and timber houses usually associated with farming and the Neolithic age were adopted as a package. To read more, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart." 

New Genome Analysis Targets the Justinian Plague

MUNICH, GERMANY—Live Science reports that scientists Michal Feldman, Johannes Krause, Michaela Harbeck, and their colleagues have conducted a new analysis of the genome of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium thought to have caused the Justinian plague. The researchers obtained a high-quality sample of DNA from the tooth of a sixth-century skeleton unearthed more than 50 years ago at Altenerding, a cemetery in southern Germany. The new study found mutations in the bacterial genome that the researchers say are associated with plague virulence. (As many as 50 million people in the Byzantine world are thought to have died of the plague between the sixth and the eighth centuries.) The new study also confirmed the conclusions of a previous study of Yersinia pestis, conducted by David Wagner of Northern Arizona University, that the strain could be traced back to China. “More high-quality genomes from different locations and time periods could shed light on the disease transmission routes and the rate that it spread,” Feldman said. To read more, go to "A Killer Bacterium Expands Its Legacy." 

Earliest Evidence of Cooked Salmon Found in Alaska

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—Scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks analyzed the stable isotopes of charcoal samples collected from the 17 fire pits at the Upward Sun River site in central Alaska. Dwellings at the site have been dated to as early as 13,200 years ago. Western Digs reports that the unique chemical signature of salmon fat was detected in ten of the cooking pits. One of these pits dated to at least 11,800 years old. Evidence for the cooking of freshwater fish and land animals was found in other pits, suggesting that the different foods were consistently prepared in different areas over the course of thousands of years. It had been previously believed that the Ice Age hunters who cooked here relied on land animals, such as bison, elk, and mammoth for food. For more on early peoples in the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning." 

Tuesday, August 30

Timbers Unearthed in Wales May Be Neolithic Log Boat

MONMOUTH, WALES—Oak timbers that may have been part of a Neolithic log boat have been unearthed at a construction site in Wales. Steve Clarke of Monmouth Archaeology told Wales Online that he expected the partially burned timbers to date to the Bronze Age, since a Bronze Age settlement had been discovered nearby. But radiocarbon dating suggests that the timbers are 5,000 years old. “There are cut features which appear to make it a complex craft and one that may be unique in maritime archaeology,” he said. Clarke explained that the largest of the pieces of wood may be a gunwale. It has an oval-shaped hole that was broken open, perhaps from the pressure of a rope. It also has a deep groove that may have held a central steering oar. A second timber, which also has a hole that exhibits signs of extensive wear, is thought to be part of the hull. The hole may have been used to attach an outrigger. To read more about this period, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Medieval Castle Foundations Unearthed in Scotland

DUN, SCOTLAND—Teenaged students have assisted with the excavation of what could be a fourteenth-century castle in eastern Scotland, according to a report in the Brechin Advertiser. The volunteers were helping The National Trust for Scotland repair a mausoleum at the historic eighteenth-century estate known as the House of Dun when they uncovered the foundations of a medieval chapel and the nearby castle. The mausoleum is thought to have originally been part of the fourteenth-century chapel. Researchers believe the castle was built in the defensive form of a tower house that was surrounded by a curtain wall and other buildings. Damaged during the Civil War of 1644, the castle was eventually replaced with the Georgian house that now stands on the property. “This discovery of the site of the Castle of Dun is one more piece in the jigsaw that is the House of Dun estate,” said archaeologist Daniel Rhodes. To read about excavations at another castle in Britain, go to "Letter From England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North." 

Ancient Egyptian Woman’s Face Reconstructed

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that a team of researchers, including an imaging specialist, a forensic Egyptologist, and a sculptor, reconstructed the face of an Egyptian mummy whose head was discovered in the collections of the University of Melbourne. The wrappings and style of embalming suggest that the person lived at least 2,000 years ago. A computed tomography (CT) scan of the embalmed head revealed that the mummy’s skull was intact, and that the individual suffered from two tooth abscesses. The scans also allowed the scientists to measure the skull. Its size suggests it belonged to a woman who was probably not more than 25 years old when she died. “We noticed that the top of her skull is very thin. It is extremely porous,” added biological anthropologist Varsha Pilbrow of the University of Melbourne. This condition may have been brought on by malaria or a flatworm infection. The researchers think the mummy’s head came to the university in the early twentieth century among the collections of archaeologist Frederic Wood Jones. To read about a recently discovered tomb containing a mummy, go to "Tomb of the Chantress."

Israel’s Early Farmers May Have Irrigated Olive Crops

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The Jerusalem Post reports that archaeologists led by researchers from the University of Haifa and the German Archaeological Institute have recovered a large number of 7,000-year-old olive pits in northern Israel. The early famers in the Tel Beit She’an Valley also grew wheat, barley, buckwheat, lentils, and peas, and they raised goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs. But the olive trees may have required an artificial irrigation system. “The existence of an ancient agricultural system that relies on artificial irrigation will require a significant change in how we perceive their agricultural sophistication,” said project leader Daniel Rosenberg. To read more about the period, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Monday, August 29

Earthquake Clean-Up Underway at Bagan

MANDALAY, MYANMAR—Volunteers, including travel and tour groups, Buddhist monks, and firefighters are being trained by UNESCO experts and members of Bagan’s Department of Archaeology, National Museum, and Library to assess the damage sustained by Bagan’s pagodas and temples in last week’s earthquake. According to a report in The Irrawaddy, volunteers will also be asked to help collect and clean up the debris. “Since these pagodas are valuable to our country’s history and culture, we need to be extremely careful when collecting debris. If we rush, we won’t have another chance to conserve these precious broken pieces,” explained Aung Aung Kyaw, director of the department. Under current estimates, nearly 400 structures were damaged. The area is under tight security to protect the structures from further damage and looters. To read about another threatened temple in Southwest Asia, go to "The Battle Over Preah Vihear." 

12th-Century Coin Cache Unearthed in Azerbaijan

JALILABAD, AZERBAIJAN—A jar containing a collection of 273 copper coins has been discovered in southern Azerbaijan. Azernews reports that the coins were cleaned and studied by a team from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, including chemist Rauf Guliyev and archaeologist Ali Rajabli. Inscriptions on the twelfth-century coins indicate that they were minted during the rule of Arslan Shah, a Seljuk sultan of the Eldiguzids dynasty. To read about an Islamic coins discovered in a Viking shield, go to "Viking Trading or Raiding?

Romans Reused Bricks for Flood Defense

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND—Gloucestershire Live reports that archaeologists digging ahead of a development project in southwest England have found Roman bricks dating to the third and fourth centuries. The bricks are thought to have been used to construct buildings in the ancient city of Glevum, and then reused to reinforce the banks of the River Twyver when those buildings were demolished. “It was clear from this dig that flooding has always been an issue Gloucester has had to deal with,” says city archaeologist Andrew Armstrong. Evidence uncovered during the investigation also suggests that during the medieval period, the area along the riverbank was a meadow or marshland that was still prone to flooding. The team has been looking for evidence of White Friars, a medieval monastery, but they now think this area would have been too boggy and therefore unsuitable. To read about another recent Roman discovery in England, go to "A Villa under the Garden."

Is It Possible to Know How Lucy Died?

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Researchers led by John Kappelman of the University of Texas at Austin suggest that Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis female, died 3.2 million years ago from a fall from a tree. The Guardian reports that Kappelman and his team, which includes orthopedic surgeon Stephen Pearce, used high-resolution x-ray scans to examine cracks in the Lucy fossils, which represent about 40 percent of her body. They say some of the damage resembles compressive fractures sustained in a fall—injuries to the right ankle, left knee and pelvis, first rib, and right humerus. “I think the injuries were so severe that she probably died very rapidly after the fall,” Kappelman said. But other scientists disagree, including Donald Johanson of Arizona State University. He and a student discovered Lucy’s remains in Ethiopia in 1974. Johanson says the cracks in Lucy’s bones are seen in all types of fossils. “We don’t know how long the fossilization process takes, but the enormous set of forces placed on the bones during the build-up of sediments covering the bones is a significant factor in promoting damage and breakage,” he explained. To read more about A. afarensis, go to "Proof in the Prints."