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From the Trenches

Tomb of the Wari Queens

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 12, 2013

Wari1

 

Last September, as University of Warsaw archaeologist Milosz Giersz’s team dug through rubble from the top of the biggest pyramid at the site of El Castillo de Huarmey in northern Peru, they uncovered a ceremonial chamber with a mudbrick throne inside. Below the chamber was more than 30 tons of stone fill. After removing it, the team discovered that the fill covered the only known unlooted imperial tomb belonging to the Wari, the first Andean people to forge an empire, which lasted from A.D. 700 to 1000.

 

Wari-2Fearing that the discovery would attract looters, the team excavated in secret and eventually found the remains of three Wari queens, one of whom was buried with a child. They also discovered the skeletons of 53 other noblewomen wrapped in burial shrouds, and six with no wrapping who were found lying facedown. “They were probably thrown in as sacrifices as the tomb was closed,” says Giersz. Among the rich array of 1,200 grave goods were silver bowls, bronze axes, and painted ceramics from all over the Andes. The queens were also buried with gold implements for sewing textiles. Since the Inca modeled their empire and many of their customs on the Wari, Giersz says studying the tomb may give archaeologists a better idea of how Inca queens were buried hundreds of years later.

High-Definition Obsidian

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Monday, August 12, 2013

obsidian2In the 1960s, British archaeologist Colin Renfrew developed a method for analyzing the chemical composition of stone tools made from volcanic obsidian. The test can identify the lava flows from which the tools were quarried. Today, portable spectrometers can deliver that information in one minute. 

 

A single lava flow can create multiple quarries that can be miles apart. However, the chemical makeup of a tool can’t tell archaeologists which specific quarry it came from. A new approach involving magnetic analysis can. Sections of a lava flow cool at different rates, resulting in variations in the sizes, shapes, and orientations of the particles in the obsidian. “As the cooling conditions vary throughout a flow,” explains University of Sheffield archaeologist Ellery Frahm, “the magnetic properties also vary.”

 

Frahm studied more than 700 pieces of obsidian to show the material could be sourced to within mere feet—not miles—of where it came from, providing a higher-resolution look at the archaeological record.

City of Red Stone

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 12, 2013

RedStoneCity1 

Aerial photographs of unexplored rain forests in southeastern Mexico led archaeologist Ivan Sprajc to a previously unknown Maya city. Dubbed Chactun, or “red stone,” the site flourished from A.D. 600 to 900, and features three pyramid complexes ranging across 54 acres. Once at the site, Sprajc’s team also found 19 stelae, including one with an inscription stating that it was erected on May 3, A.D. 751.

 

Sprajc expects to uncover more inscriptions, but he is also interested in the “afterlife” of the stelae, which were moved after Chactun’s heyday. “Some we even found upside down,” he says. “This reflects activity on the site after its period of splendor.” He hopes studying the ways the monuments were reused will help his team understand the events that led to the city’s decline.

Animal Offerings of the Aztecs

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, August 12, 2013

Aztecs

 

Archaeologists investigating the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in Mexico have discovered that more than 400 animal species were systematically deposited there as offerings to the gods. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the animals were found in 60 ritual burials, dating from 1440 to 1520, located within the Sacred Precinct, outside the Templo Mayor. The assortment of species—ranging from big cats and eagles to crocodiles and shellfish—were dedicated to the Aztec gods Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, whose twin shrines stood atop the temple. While mollusks and fish comprise the majority of the specimens, the collection is highlighted by 13 pumas, two jaguars, and six wolves. There is evidence the Aztecs practiced a form of taxidermy to ensure the more important animal offerings maintained their shape and beauty. The finds demonstrate that the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán participated in broad exchange systems, as many of the specimens were not local, but were acquired through trade or tribute. These included fauna from tropical rain forests, including jaguars, quetzals, crocodiles, and snakes, and many species of fish and mollusks imported from reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, more than 100 miles away. 

Sifting Through Molehills

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, August 12, 2013

Moles

 

No one can dig at Epiacum, one of the best-preserved Roman forts in Britain, without special permission, but moles have little regard for the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979. The small mammals can dig dozens of feet of tunnels a day through farm, forest, or archaeological site. Volunteers working with Paul Frodsham, an archaeologist with the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, are now sifting through the molehills the critters leave outside their tunnels for pieces of pottery, glass, and other items from the second to fourth centuries. Frodsham wants to be able to learn how buildings were used at the fort, which has not seen archaeological investigation in more than 50 years. “I realize it sounds a bit ridiculous,” he says, “but it’s actually quite serious.” 

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