Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, October 22

8,000-Year-Old Nut Shells Unearthed in Scotland

SKYE, SCOTLAND—Hazelnut shells have been uncovered at a Mesolithic site on the Isle of Skye by archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands, members of the Staffin Community Trust, schoolchildren, and volunteers. “We have found lots of fragments of charred hazelnut shells in the lower soil samples. They are the ideal thing to date as they have a short life span and were a Mesolithic favorite,” archaeologist Dan Lee told BBC News. The team also recovered flints and a piece of bone that may have been used as a toggle or a bead. For more, go to "Beachcombing in the Mesolithic."

New Dates Link Humans to Australia’s Megafauna Extinctions

DALLAS, TEXAS—New dates suggest that human hunters may have been directly responsible for the extinction of Australia’s huge monitor lizards, large terrestrial birds, giant wombats, marsupial lions, and giant kangaroos. “There’s been a lengthy, sometimes heated debate about whether human hunting or other impacts caused the huge mass extinction of large terrestrial vertebrates in Australia during the last glacial period,” John Alroy of Macquarie University in New South Wales said at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Alroy and his colleagues dated more than 200 fossils and found that the megafauna disappeared between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. He also estimated that the first humans arrived in Australia between 50,000 and 61,000 years ago. This allows for 14,000 years for humans to spread across Australia and develop technology for hunting large prey. “The results are also important because they’re consistent with evidence that human hunting caused major extinctions later on in North and South America, in addition to relatively recent extinctions on many islands (such as the loss of moas in New Zealand),” Alroy said in a press release. To see examples of ancient Australian art, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

World’s Oldest Abecedary Identified

LEIDEN, HOLLAND—An ostracon dating to the fifteenth-century B.C. is being called the world’s oldest-known abecedary by Egyptologist Ben Haring of Leiden University, whose work has been supported by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). The limestone flake, discovered in a tomb in Luxor more than 20 years ago, is inscribed with a list of ancient Egyptian words written in hieratic script. The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds in the HLHM order used by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Ethiopian scripts. A column of signs to the left of the words may be abbreviations or even the initial sounds, which would make them alphabetic signs. Inscriptions inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs have been found in the Sinai Desert and in southern Egypt, and are thought to be the earliest known alphabetic characters. Some of these characters are in the left column of the word list on the ostracon, and could help scholars reconstruct the earliest-known alphabet. To read more about ancient Egypt, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

4,800-Year-Old Evidence of Plague Infection Found

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, has been detected in DNA obtained from Bronze Age tooth samples by a team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev, then of the University of Copenhagen. It had been unclear if Y. pestis could have caused epidemics such as the Plague of Athens 2,500 years ago, and the Antonine Plague in the second century A.D., because traces of the bacterium had not been found in bones older than 1,500 years. Now Willerslev, Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg, and their colleagues think that Y. pestis infection may have prompted large-scale migrations and population replacements in Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age. “Perhaps people were migrating to get away from epidemics or re-colonizing new areas where epidemics had decimated the local populations. Could it be, for example, that plague was present in humans already in these prehistoric times?” Moreten Allentoft of the University of Copenhagen asked in a press release. The team found that mutations in the bacterium’s DNA over time suggest it had evolved into a flea-borne mammalian pathogen by the beginning of the first millennium B.C., when history records the outbreak of virulent plagues. To read about evidence for a more recent outbreak, go to "A Parisian Plague."

Wednesday, October 21

Scholars Debunk Cleopatra’s Death by Cobra

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—Andrew Gray, Curator of Herpetology at Manchester Museum and Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley of The University of Manchester argue in a video that it is unlikely that Cleopatra and her maids were killed by a venomous snake. According to Tyldesley, ancient accounts record that the snake hid in a basket of figs brought from the countryside. “Not only are cobras too big, but there’s just a ten percent chance you would die from a snake bite: most bites are dry bites that don’t inject venom,” Gray said in a press release. He adds that cobras tend to conserve their venom to protect themselves and for hunting. “That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly.” Tyldesley explains that Cleopatra, like other kings and queens of Egypt, was associated with snakes, which the Egyptians thought of as good mothers. She also thought of herself as the embodiment of the goddess Isis, who could take a snake’s form. To read more about Egyptology, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Conservators Begin to Repair Tutankhamun’s Mask

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team of German and Egyptian experts is working together to repair the 3,300-year-old burial mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in a laboratory at the Egyptian Museum. A year ago, its beard was knocked off accidentally by a museum employee who was working on the museum’s lighting. The beard was then hastily reapplied with epoxy, which is non-soluble. The conservators are carefully scraping the epoxy off the mask with wooden sticks, and may need to warm up the glue to complete the job. They will reattach the beard after they have studied how it was originally joined to the mask. “We have some uncertainties now, we don’t know how deep the glue went inside the beard, and so we don’t know how long it will take to remove the beard,” Christian Eckmann, a lead specialist, told The Guardian. “We are using this chance to gain new information about the manufacture,” he added. For more, go to "Warrior Tut."

Tashtyk Crypt Excavated in Siberia

KEMEROVO, RUSSIA—A large fifth-century crypt containing the remains of as many as 30 people has been excavated in Siberia. The crypt, constructed as a large hole with a stone wall around it, had a log floor. Pavel German of the Institute of Human Ecology in Kemerovo says that in this burial, known as Shestakovo-3, the Tashtyk people placed dummies with bodies made of leather or fabric filled with the cremated remains of adults. A life-like gypsum mask of the deceased was then placed on the dummy. “Such gypsum masks are excellently preserved in a dry environment, in sandy soil, as for example in Khakassia. Here, in Kemerovo region, the soil is more wet, besides there are tree roots everywhere. It doesn’t help the preservation. We have here a lot of fragments, but we hope to restore them. For example we’ve got rather big fragment, half of one mask,” he told The Siberian Times. The skeletal remains of children were found buried near the walls of the crypt. “After the crypt was filled it was burned down. The wooden construction fell down and overlapped burials,” German said. To read more about Siberian archaeology, go to "Fortress of Solitude."

Hiker Discovers Viking Sword in Norway

HAUKELI, NORWAY—A hiker who sat down to rest discovered a 1,200-year-old Viking sword in central southern Norway. “The sword was found in very good condition. It is very special to get into a sword that is merely lacking its grip,” archaeologist Jostein Aksdal told The Local, Norway. He added that the sword probably dates to between A.D. 750 and 800, and is of a type that was common in western Norway. “When the snow has gone in spring, we will check the place where the sword was found. If we find several objects, or a tomb, perhaps we can find the story behind the sword,” he added. To read about another recently discovered Viking weapon, go to "Artifact: Viking Sword."

Tuesday, October 20

Floors from 18th-C. Mansion Unearthed in England

NOTTINGHAMSHIRE, ENGLAND—Traces of the oldest part of Clumber House, the Duke of Newcastle’s eighteenth-century mansion that was destroyed by fire in 1879, have been uncovered at Clumber Park by archaeologists from the National Trust, who are excavating ahead of the installation of new sewers and drains. Flooring made of cut stone with a cast iron grill around the perimeter that covered a heating pipe was found, along with a system of cellars that was used to store beer and wine. “The floors are in a fabulous condition and really do look as though they were only laid yesterday,” archaeologist Rachael Hall told Culture 24. After the 1879 fire, the house was rebuilt, then demolished in 1938 after another fire, World War I, and the Great Depression took their toll. “It was completely levelled, with the exception of the Duke’s Study which is the only surviving remnant of Clumber House and is now used as a dining area within the Clumber restaurant. The stables and estate yard buildings all still survive,” Hall added. To read in-depth about another excavation in England, go to "The Scientist's Garden."

Medusa Sculpture Unearthed in Turkey

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA—A sculpture of Medusa’s head has been unearthed in southern Turkey at the first-century Roman site of Antiochia ad Cragum. The marble carving was part of a pediment that may have stood in an ancient temple that was smashed during the Christian era. “These things were meant to be destroyed and put into a lime kiln to be burned and turned into mortar,” excavation director Michael Hoff of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Live Science. The recovered fragments of the pediment were reassembled using 3-D photogrammetry techniques. The excavation team has also found the remains of a bouleuterion, or city council house that may have also served as a theater; colonnaded streets; shops; and a poolside mosaic at the site. To read about mosaics unearthed in Turkey dating to this period, go to "Zeugma After the Flood."

Where Did Dogs Originate?

ITHACA, NEW YORK—A genetic survey conducted by Laura M. Shannon and Adam Boyko of Cornell University and an international team of scientists suggests that the most recent common ancestor of today’s domesticated dogs originated in Central Asia. Previous genetic studies have suggested that dogs originated in the Middle East, in East Asia, and in Europe. This team studied nuclear DNA, DNA from Y-chromosomes, and mitochondrial DNA from 4,676 dogs from 161 breeds, and 549 village dogs—feral dogs that live near human settlements—in 38 countries. “The fact that we looked at so many village dogs from so many different regions, we were able to narrow in on the patterns of diversity in these indigenous dogs,” Boyko told BBC News. He suggests that further research could focus on dog remains from archaeological sites in Central Asia. Even though scholars are divided on where the first dogs were domesticated, they tend to agree that it happened some 15,000 years ago. “There’s no doubt they were hanging around [hunting] camps and becoming gradually more attuned to human life. The question is what was the first step for why that was happening,” Boyko said. To read more about dogs and archaeology, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Unhealthy Levels of Lead Found in Medieval Skeletons

ODENSE, DENMARK—Scientists from the University of Southern Denmark analyzed the levels of lead and mercury in more than 200 skeletons from medieval cemeteries in Denmark and Germany. They found that wealthier people, who usually lived in towns, had higher levels of heavy metals in their bodies. Mercury was used to prepare the color cinnabar, for gilding, and was used as medicine for the treatment syphilis and leprosy, a common ailment. As for lead exposure, the wealthy ate from plates that had been glazed with lead oxide. Salty and acidic foods kept in these glazed pots dissolved the glaze and the lead leaked into the food. Poorer people, often living in the country, were still exposed to lead, but they usually used unglazed pottery. “In the Middle Ages you could almost not avoid ingesting lead, if you were wealthy or living in an urban environment. But what is perhaps more severe, is the fact that exposure to lead leads to lower intelligence of children,” Kaare Lund Rasmussen said in a press release. Exposure to townspeople also came from lead coins, stained-glass windows, and lead tiles on the roofs, since rainwater was often collected for drinking. To read more about medieval bioarchaeology, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."