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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, February 23

Browns Canyon Added to List of National Monuments

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—President Obama has added Browns Canyon in central Colorado to the list of protected National Monuments. “Browns Canyon harbors a wealth of scientifically significant geological, ecological, riparian, cultural, and historic resources, and is an important area for studies of paleoecology, mineralogy, archaeology, and climate change,” the president said in a statement reported by The Environment News Service. Artifacts estimated to be more than 10,000 years old have been found in the Browns Canyon area. Eighteen archaeological sites have been found in the few areas that have been surveyed, including five prehistoric sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. 

Skull Fragment May Represent Extinct Lineage of Humans

NAIROBI, KENYA—A second look at a 22,000-year-old skull fragment from the collections at the National Museums of Kenya suggests that humans were more diverse than previously thought. “It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we’ve since lost,” Christian Tryon of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum told Live Science. The skull, discovered in the 1970s at rock shelters at Lukenya Hill, resembles that of a modern human, but its dimensions are different from finds of the same age in Africa and Europe. The skull is also thickened, perhaps from damage, nutritional stress, or a highly active childhood. Artifacts from the site include 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads, and tiny stone blades.

Skeletal Remains Found in Buddha Statue

AMERSFOORT, NETHERLANDS—CT scans and endoscopy of a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue from China have revealed a mummified body thought to belong to the Buddhist master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School. The statue, housed at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands, was examined at the Meander Medical Center. Discovery News reports that the body’s organs had been removed from the abdominal cavity and replaced with an unidentified material and paper printed with Chinese characters. Researchers at the Drents Museum speculate that the statue may represent a rare case of "self-mummification," in which monks would follow a special diet that turned them into "living skeletons" and would then be placed into tombs only slightly larger than themselves where they would eventually die. To read about tattoos on a more ancient mummy from China, see "Tarim Basin Mummy."

Archaeologists Will Use Drones to Search the Amazon

EXETER, ENGLAND—An international project funded by the European Research Council will search the Amazon River Basin for clues to the forest’s inhabitants for the past 3,000 years. Jose Iriarte of the University of Exeter says that recent work has shown that the Amazon was populated with more complex societies than scientists had thought the forest could support. Dark earth, cultivated by humans to create raised agricultural fields, and geoglyphs made up of large ditches, can be spotted from the air by drones carrying Lidar technology, which uses lasers to map the topography of the ground. “We are hoping that with Lidar we are going to be able to discover all of these archaeological features like mounts, ditches, trail ways and so forth, so that when you put them together you can really have an idea of the regional archaeological landscape,” Iriarte told Deutsche Welle. The data will also help scientists see how humans have changed the forest. “This has implications for conservation because maybe the very biodiversity that we want to preserve today is not only the result of millions of years of natural processes, but also have a human footprint,” he said. To read more about the use of Lidar in New World archaeology, see "Lasers in the Jungle."

Friday, February 20

Ancient vs. Modern Cities

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO—Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Colorado Boulder have revealed the results of a study designed to understand whether ancient settlements and modern cities functioned in similar or different ways. By examining pre-contact archaeological data from sites in the Basin of Mexico to estimate populations, densities, size and construction rates of monuments and buildings, and the intensity of site use, the researchers learned that, in fact, ancient settlements and modern cities functioned in much the same way. “It was shocking and unbelievable,” says anthropologist and study author Scott Ortman. “We were raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.” To read more about Mexico City’s buried history, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Under the Streets of Singapore

SINGAPORE—At a 1,000-square-meter excavation site in front of the Empress Palace in Singapore undertaken in advance of a large construction and beautification project, archaeologists have found artifacts dating back as much as 700 years, reports AsiaOne. The dig is the largest excavation project in Singapore for more than three decades and the finds include Chinese ceramics, jars, and figurines, copper coins, and carnelian beads. "The Empress Place was the location of a thriving port in the early days and any new discovery will hopefully advance our understanding of Singapore's earliest beginnings," said excavation leader and archaeologist Lim Chen Sian. To read about the world’s oldest pottery, go to "The First Pots."

Medieval Polish History Uncovered

MAZURY, POLAND—At the site of Skomack Wielki in northern Poland, archaeologists have discovered a surprising cache of intact pottery, and iron and bronze artifacts dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, reports Science and Scholarship in Poland. The metal finds include both luxury items such as jewelry and buckles, as well more every day objects as knives and toiletries. Excavation director Anna Bitner-Wróblewska suggests that the site was probably inhabited by members of the Galind tribe, a community that had what she calls “extremely extensive contacts” with large areas of Europe at this time. To read about a cemetery filled with vampires, go to “Polish ‘Vampire’ Burials Studied.” 

New Research Into Indo-European Languages

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Linguists at the University of California, Berkeley, have used data gathered from more than 150 languages to show that the common ancestor of many of today’s languages, including English, first emerged 5,500-6,500 years ago in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Using sets of words from both living and dead Indo-European languages, the researchers found evidence to support what is known as the “Steppe Hypothesis,” as opposed to the interpretation that suggests that these languages evolved from a common ancestor in Anatolia (modern Turkey) as much as 9,500 years ago. To read more about—and to hear a sample of—Indo-European languages, go to “Wolf Rites of Winter.” 

Thursday, February 19

Ancient Peruvian Site Damaged

CAJAMARCA, PERU—A report in Peru This Week has stated that part of the archaeological site called Farfán in northern Peru has been destroyed by a local man claiming ownership of the land. The site of Farfán, which is located about 7 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, likely contains remains belonging to the Lambayeque culture and was the provincial center for the Chimu Empire. Although the site has been heavily damaged by looters, agriculture, and construction over the last century, archaeological evidence of these ancient cultures still remains on the site. More damage has been done by this most recent incursion, which is now being assessed by the Ministry of Culture. To read about two recently discovered Chimu funerary idols, go to “Artifact.” 

Neanderthal Division of Labor

MADRID, SPAIN—A study published by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has concluded that within communities of Neanderthals, some jobs were divvied up between men and women according to their sex. While the research showed that both sexes had dental grooves as a result of the use of their mouths as a kind of third hand, the grooves in the teeth of adult women were longer than those in adult men, leading to the conclusion that each sex performed different jobs, although it is not yet clear exactly which belonged to men and which to women. "Nevertheless, we believe that the specialization of labor by sex of the individuals was probably limited to a few tasks, as it is possible that both men and women participated equally in the hunting of big animals,” says Almudena Estalrrich of the CSIC. To read about the Neanderthal genome project, go to “Neanderthal Genome Decoded.”   

Researchers Discover How Ants Came to the Old World

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have analyzed the genomes of insects from 192 locations and discovered that the tropical fire ant was the first great ant explorer. Crews of 16th-century Spanish galleons would fill their ships with soil in the New World and, when they reached a new port, replace it with cargo, explains entomologist and biologist Andrew Suarez, one of the study’s authors. The ants would be offloaded at locations across Europe when the ballast was dumped. This invasive species of insect created a massive problem for local agriculture and native animal and bird populations.  “This was one of the first global invasions,” says Suarez. To read about a 16th-century galleon’s trip to the American South, go to “Sunken Dreams.”

Golden Treasure on the Seafloor

CAESAREA, ISRAEL—At the site of the ancient Roman harbor of Caesarea, scuba divers have discovered the largest hoard of gold coins ever found in Israel, reports the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Soon after they found the first coins, which were exposed by winter storms, the divers reported their discovery to authorities. Archaeologists from the IAA then explored the site, where they uncovered almost 2,000 coins dating from the second half of the ninth to the eleventh century A.D., the period of the Fatimid Caliphate. Marine archaeologist Kobi Sharvit of the IAA will lead future excavations on the seafloor near the findspot of the hoard in the hopes of possibly finding the ship that may have been carrying the coins, and that may have sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean almost a thousand years ago.  To read about one of the largest coin hoards ever found in England—one of last year’s Top 10 Discoveries, go to “The Seaton Down Hoard.”