Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 24

First Albertans Are 300 Years Older Than Previously Thought

CALGARY, CANADA—New, more accurate radiocarbon dates have been obtained for a well-preserved hunting site discovered along the St. Mary River in southern Alberta in 1999, during a period of low water levels. The footprints of horses and camels, their butchered bones, and stone tools, are 13,300 years old. “It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand there and know that these are the first Albertans,” Brian Kooyman of the University of Calgary told CTV News. The animals probably came to drink at the kill site, where they were ambushed by hunters. “We can actually see what they were doing. They’re hunting systematically and successfully and more than one animal species. I don’t think there’s anything really like it,” Kooyman added. To read in-depth about prehistoric buffalo hunting in this area, see "The Buffalo Chasers."

Public Buildings or Maya Society—Which Came First?

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Excavations at the Maya site of Ceibal in Guatemala have revealed a public plaza that dates to about 950 B.C., and ceremonial buildings surrounding the plaza that grew to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet there is little evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during the same time period. “Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center,” Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona said in a press release. Most people at this time were living a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving throughout the rainforest. These different groups of people may have come together at Ceibal to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over a period of several hundred years before making the transition to a fully sedentary society. “This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it’s the other way around,” Inomata explained. To read more in-depth about the ancient Maya, see "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Argentina’s “Nazi Hideout” Revisited

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA—An article in The Guardian responds to reports that a Nazi hideout was excavated in northwestern Argentina by archaeologist Daniel Schavelzon, who claimed that the ruins of three stone buildings in the jungles of Teyú Cuaré National Park could have sheltered war criminals on the run after World War II. “There is no documentation, but we found German coins from the war period in the foundations,” Schavelzon told The Guardian. After the war, Argentina’s president Juan Perón did give refuge to Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, but they lived in suburban homes outside of Buenos Aires. And, many German immigrants arrived in Argentina in the early twentieth century, giving rise to some three million people of German descent who live in the country today. But are the coins proof of a secret Nazi enclave? “That was just speculation on my part. The press picked it up and magnified it,” Schavelzon said. 

Monday, March 23

Porcupine Unearths Oil Lamp in Central Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Anti-antiquities-theft inspectors spotted an oil lamp on top of a pile of dirt while on patrol at Horbat Siv, a Roman-Byzantine site in central Israel. It turned out that the lamp had been brought to the surface by a porcupine digging a burrow. Further investigation revealed that the “relentless digger” had uncovered other ancient objects as well. “It often happens that porcupines dig their burrows at the site of archaeological digs…he skillfully throws the dirt aside, and with it whatever archaeological findings are in his path,” Ira Horovitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft unit told The Jerusalem Post. “The IAA calls on all porcupines to avoid digging burrows at archaeological sites and warns that digging at an archaeological site without a license is a criminal offense,” he joked. For more, see "Critter Diggers."

Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries Restored

POMPEII, ITALY—Now that a two-year restoration project has been completed, the Villa of the Mysteries has reopened to visitors. The building’s paintings, which feature life-sized figures, are thought to depict the initiation rites of the cult of Dionysus. Wax that had been applied during an earlier restoration was removed, and the darkened images were brightened. “We know well that the world looks with great attention at everything that happens at Pompeii. Today, Italy is proud to say to the world that we have turned a page,” Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said in a press conference reported in The Telegraph. For an in-depth report on this work, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries." 

Paleolithic Hunters May Have Poisoned Their Weapons

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A new technique, developed by Valentina Borgia of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and forensic chemist Michelle Carlin of Northumbria University, can identify residues of poisons on archaeological artifacts. Borgia thinks that hunters used poisons as early as 30,000 years ago, and is looking for traces of them on samples from museum collections. Initial tests of 6,000-year-old Egyptian arrows suggest that the black residue on their tips is from a poisonous plant in the project’s database. “It made good sense for people to use poisons. On their own, Paleolithic weapons with stone arrowheads may not have been deadly enough to immobilize or kill a large animal such as a red deer. Poisons plants were plentiful and the prehistoric population knew the environment where they lived, they knew the edible plants and their potential as medicines and poisons. To fabricate a poison is easy and economic, and the risk is minimal. In addition, the making of poisons is often part of the tradition and the rituality of hunting,” Borgia said in a press release. For more, see "The First Use of Poison." 

Did a Volcanic Eruption Wipe Out the Last Neanderthals?

BOULDER, COLORADO—The last of the Neanderthals died out some 40,000 years ago, about the same time as the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy. Archaeologists have wondered if the volcanic cataclysm, which injected sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, played a role the extinction. A sophisticated climate model developed by Benjamin A. Black of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues simulates the environment after the eruption. “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well,” they wrote in an upcoming article in the journal Geology. The model shows that temperatures in Eastern Europe and Asia had the largest decreases after the eruption. The last Neanderthal populations and modern humans in Western Europe would have experienced a drop in temperature from two to four degrees Celsius. The team concludes that these changes were probably insufficient to trigger the demise of the Neanderthals. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Friday, March 20

Rescue Excavations Continue at Bulgaria’s Aquae Calidae

BURGAS, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that excavations at Aquae Calidae, an ancient spa resort, have uncovered a fragment of a Roman inscription dating to the first or second centuries A.D., and a second- or third-century A.D. statuette carved from marble. The city was later known as Therma, or Thermopolis, and archaeologists have uncovered seventh-century Byzantine coins, and scyphates, or cup-shaped coins, dating to the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries. Two lead seals, one of which dates to the end of the eleventh century; ceramic vessels; glass bracelets; Ottoman smoking pipes; and two silver Ottoman coins were also recovered. Some of the coins were discovered in a medieval building. To read about a spectacular recent discovery in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Complete Crossbow Found With China’s Terracotta Army

XI’AN, CHINA—The most complete crossbow to date to have been found with the terracotta army at Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum has been unearthed in pit number one. The arch of the weapon survives, along with a bow string thought to have been made from animal tendon, and a trigger mechanism made of bronze. This example is also complete with the two poorly understood wooden sticks that are usually found with the terracotta army’s crossbows. “When we dusted off the sticks, we found three holes equidistant from each other and concluded that they were probably used to hang up ropes that fastened the crossbows when they were not in use,” Shen Maosheng, head of the archaeological team, told ECNS News. This crossbow will also help researchers create a more precise model to determine its shooting range more accurately. 

Western Washington’s “Completely New” Projectile Points

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—A tool-making site estimated to be more than 10,000 years old has been found along Bear Creek in suburban Seattle. Thousands of stone flakes and bifaces, scrapers, and hammerstones were recovered, along with two projectile-point fragments that are concave-based, “something not seen at any time in the local projectile point sequence,” Robert Kopperl of SWCA Environmental Consultants told Western Digs. The artifacts were found under a layer of peat radiocarbon dated to about 10,000 years ago. Burned bits of willow, poplar, and pine dated to between 10,000 and 12,500 years ago were found in the layer with the artifacts. “It’s the oldest artifact assemblage from western Washington, and the excellent context in which we were able to do our excavations and sampling is now providing a picture, much clearer than ever before, of the environment these people were living in during the transition out of the Ice Age,” Kopperl explained. To read in-depth about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning." 

European Parasites Hint at Jerusalem’s Medieval Tourist Trade

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Evidence of six species of parasites were detected in fossilized feces taken from a 500-year-old latrine in Jerusalem’s Christian quarter. The latrine, located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, had a vaulted roof, stone walls, and two “entry chutes.” All of the samples had roundworm and whipworm, which may have been spread by fecal contamination of food and water through agricultural practices. Two of the parasites, Entamoeba dysentery and fish tapeworm, found in one of the samples, were common in northern Europe at the time, but were very rare among populations in the Middle East. Common northern European methods of preparation, including smoking and pickling, do not kill the fish tapeworm parasite. Arabic texts of the time indicate that fish was not commonly eaten in inland cities such as Jerusalem, but when it was consumed, it was cooked thoroughly, according to local culinary traditions, which would have killed parasites. Fragments of imported pottery were also recovered from the cesspit. “This research highlights how we can use preserved parasite eggs in ancient toilets to spot past migrations and the spread of ancient diseases. Jerusalem’s importance to Christians in medieval Europe made it a key destination for both pilgrimage and trade. We can see these travelers took unexpected guests along with them,” Piers Mitchell of Cambridge University said in a press release. To read about archaeoentomology, see "Insights From Insects."