Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, December 14

Neanderthals Returned to Cave for More Than 100,000 Years

SAINT HELIER, JERSEY—UPI reports that archaeologist Andy Shaw of the University of Southampton led a team that reexamined artifacts and mammoth bones unearthed in La Cotte de St Brelade, a cave on the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of France. The team also investigated the landscape surrounding the cave. The study suggests Neanderthals returned to the high ground for many generations between 180,000 and 40,000 years ago, before Jersey was surrounded by water. But the researchers are not sure why the Neanderthals kept returning to the cave, despite changes in the climate and the landscape. It may have been a highly visible marker with a known shelter, and may be one of the last known places where Neanderthals lived. To read about another cave used by Neanderthals, go to “Early Man Cave.”

Extinct Seal’s Tooth Found at Florida Archaeological Site

DAVIE, FLORIDA—The Miami Herald reports that a tooth from a Caribbean monk seal has been found at a prehistoric archaeological site at Lake Worth, in southern Florida. This is the first time evidence of the seal has been found in this area, although seal remains have also been found at a Tequesta site at the mouth of the Miami River, along the Florida coast, and in the Bahamas. DNA testing has revealed that the seal, hunted to extinction by Europeans for its oil, was a member of the newly discovered Neomonachus genus, which also includes the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Christopher Columbus first recorded the Caribbean monk seal in 1494. The last Caribbean monk seal in the United States was killed near Key West in 1922, while the last sighting of the animal was in 1956, between Jamaica and the Yucatán Peninsula. For more on archaeology in Florida, go to “Letter from Florida: People of the White Earth.”

Possible A. afarensis Trackway Found in Tanzania

ROME, ITALY—BBC News reports that a new trackway of large footprints has been found at the site of Laetoli in northern Tanzania, where another set of prints, thought to have been left by Australopithecus afarensis individuals, was discovered about 500 feet away in the 1970s. Giorgio Manzi of Sapienza University, Marco Cherin of the University of Perugia, and their colleagues in Tanzania think the 3.66-million-year-old prints were made by an Australopithecus afarensis male who stood about five feet, five inches tall and weighed about 100 pounds. That’s almost eight inches taller than the height estimate made for the individuals who left the other tracks. Were Australopithecus afarensis males considerably larger than the females? The researchers suggest that taken together, the prints represent a group made up of one male, two or three females, and one or two juveniles. For more on ancient footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”

Shark Teeth May Have Inspired Maya Sea Monster Stories

HARRISONBURG, VIRGINIA—Sarah Newman of James Madison University has studied how the Maya may have combined what they knew about sharks with their understanding of the creation of the world, according to a report in Live Science. The fossilized remains of megalodon sharks, who lived between 23 million and 2.6 million years ago, have been found in offerings at many archaeological sites in Central America. Newman suggests that fossilized shark teeth may have inspired the creation of a sea monster called Sipak by the Maya, and Cipactli by the Aztecs, which is portrayed as having a single giant tooth. “Mayan iconography is notoriously difficult to piece out, but you can see [the monster] is a fairly realistic representation of a shark with a bifurcated tail, and it has jagged jaws—but it does have that one central tooth,” Newman said. The teeth of living species of sharks have also been found in sacred offerings, even in inland cities where the residents may never have seen an entire shark. Newman thinks cultural concepts of sharks may have spread along with the traded shark remains as a way to make sense of the world. For more, go to “Letter from Guatemala: Maya Metropolis.”

Tuesday, December 13

Forensic Technique Applied to Prehistoric Rock Art

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—UPI reports that researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of the Witwatersrand used a forensics technique to study hand stencils found in prehistoric rock art. The scientists think the method, which applies geometric morphometrics to the images, can determine whether a given stencil was created by a man or a woman with 90 percent accuracy. The team members created new hand stencils for the test by blowing, spitting, or stippling pigment over men and women’s hands held against a rock surface. The negative impressions on the rock were then digitized and evaluated. Forensic anthropologist Patrick Randolph-Quinney explained that the shape of the palm, rather than finger size and length, may be the most accurate way to determine the sex of the artist. The team recommends acquiring hand measurements from people around the world to further develop the technique for archaeological use. For more, go to “New Dates for the Oldest Cave Paintings.”

Roman Villa Complex found in the East of England

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Cambridge News reports that a construction project near the town of Bottisham has uncovered a large Roman settlement, including a villa complex that dates between A.D. 200 and 400. One of those buildings is thought to have been a bath house that had an underfloor heating system. Archaeologists have also found a fourth-century coin of the Roman emperor Constantine II, ceramic building tiles, stone work, and a spout from an imported pottery vessel. “Another extremely exciting discovery was the evidence of medieval settlement activity which suggests that the medieval village of Bottisham may have once expanded along Tunbridge Lane,” said Duncan Hawkins of CgMs Consulting. For more, go to “A Villa under the Garden.”

Ancient Astronomers’ Records Assist Modern Scientists

DURHAM, ENGLAND—The Los Angeles Times reports that ancient records of lunar and solar eclipses have helped scientists to determine that the time it takes for the Earth to spin once around its axis has increased by an average of 1.8 milliseconds per century. Recently retired astronomer Richard Stephenson began the project 40 years ago at the University of Essex, and continued the work at Durham University, where he memorized 1,500 Chinese characters so that he could decipher astronomical records kept between A.D. 434 and 1280. He also analyzed data from Babylonian cuneiform tablets written between 720 and 10 B.C., the work of Arab astronomers working between A.D. 800 and 1000, and medieval European records. “People recording these things never had the slightest notion that what they were doing would lead to people in our generation actually studying changes in the Earth spin,” Stephenson said. “We are very much at the mercy of these ancient chroniclers and astronomers.” Stephenson would like to add the observations of the Maya and the Incas to the data set, and to find additional data dating from A.D. 200 to 600. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

Monday, December 12

Neolithic Man’s Face Reconstructed

LONDON, ENGLAND—The face of a man who lived 9,500 years ago in Jericho, near the Jordan River in the West Bank, has been reconstructed based on a scan of his skull, according to a report from Seeker. The “Jericho Skull” is one of seven discovered by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953 and is now housed at the British Museum. It consists of a face modeled in plaster over a man’s skull. “He was certainly a mature individual when he died, but we cannot say exactly why his skull, or for that matter the other skulls that were buried alongside him, were chosen to be plastered,” says Alexandra Fletcher of the British Museum. “It may have been something these individuals achieved in life that led to them being remembered after death.” The 3-D reconstruction of the man’s face was produced using a micro-CT scan of the skull, which detected the structure of his face bones. The scan revealed that the man had broken and decayed teeth and a healed broken nose, and that his head had been bound from a young age to alter the shape of his skull, which suggests that he had elite status. For more, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Ancient Greek City Explored

  VLOCHOS, GREECE— Archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg and the University of Bournemouth are exploring the remains of a long-overlooked ancient city in northern Greece. The ruins, which are scattered atop a hill, were known to scholars, but were regarded as belonging to a small settlement. However, after just one season, the team has found extensive walls that enclose some 100 acres. “I think it is incredibly big,” project leader Robin Rönnlund told The Local Sweden. “It's something thought to be a small village that turns out to be a city, with a structured network of streets and a square.” The team has found coins dating back to 500 B.C., as well as other artifacts that indicate the city flourished from the fourth to third centuries B.C., before it was abandoned when Romans conquered the region. To read more about recent archaeology in Greece, go to “Murder on the Mountain?

1,500-Year-Old Gold Amulet Unearthed in Denmark

LOLLAND, DENMARK—A local man and his two sons have found a range of gold items on the Danish island of Lolland, according to a report in The Local Denmark. Included in the find was a bracteate, or thin gold medallion dating to the Germanic Iron Age. Archaeologists at the Museum Lolland-Falster believe the amulet includes an image of the Nordic god Odin. “Even though it is a previously known type, it is a rare and exciting discovery,” said museum spokeswoman Marie Brinch. “Throughout history there have only been three found on Lolland, the latest in 1906, and in all of Northern Europe there are only around 1,000 of them.” Also found with the amulet were another gold pendant, a gold ring, and a number of pieces of silver. To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Australian Shipwreck Mapped

PERTH, AUSTRALIA—The New Daily reports that archaeologists from the Western Australia Maritime Museum have returned to the wreck James Matthews, a British merchant ship that sunk in 1841. The team's goal is to create a detailed, 3-D model of the ship in order to closely monitor how the vessel's condition changes in the future. “The idea is we will come back every few years and take another set of photographs and be able to overlay the models,” says former museum director Graeme Henderson. “You’ll see growth in seaweed and sponges on the site and you’ll also be able to see the deterioration if that’s happened.” First discovered in 1973, the ship had sailed from London laden with farming equipment and other supplies for the newly established Swan River colony. Because much of the ship was buried in sand, its cargo was unusually well preserved. Research into the ship's history also revealed the vessel had a dark past. Earlier it was known as the Don Franciso, and served as a Brazilian slaving ship that was seized by the British in 1837 with more than 400 slaves aboard. To read in-depth about maritime archaeology, go to “History’s 10 Greatest Wrecks.”