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From the Trenches

The Doctor Is In


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Abusir-Shepseskafankh-tombA Czech team investigating the site of Abusir, a necropolis 15 miles south of Cairo, discovered the tomb of a royal physician dating back to the twenty-fourth century B.C. The doctor, Shepseskafankh, was a key member of the court of Niuserre, and his 2,500-square-foot limestone tomb contains a chapel and seven underground chambers, previously looted, where he and his family were interred.


The most significant artifact found in the tomb was an 11.5-foot stela, or, as the archaeologists refer to it, a “false door,” on which were inscribed several titles that Shepseskafankh held. They included Priest of Re in the Temples of the Sun and Priest of Khnum. According to the excavation’s leader, Miroslav Bárta of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Shepseskafankh was also known as “overseer of drugs of the Great House,” meaning he was the official doctor and pharmacist of the royal family.


Bárta notes that Abusir likely contains dozens of large tombs erected for many high-ranking members of ancient Egypt’s 5th Dynasty. Officials of the 4th Dynasty are interred in Giza, whereas those of the 6th are at Saqqara. “The discovery of the tomb of Shepseskafankh,” says Bárta, “shows above all how rich the potential of the sites on the pyramid fields is.”

Thorfinn the Mighty's Thing


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trenches-Thorfinn-Parliament-ScotlandArchaeologists digging beneath a parking lot in the Scottish town of Dingwall have uncovered the remains of a massive mound where the Viking earl Thorfinn the Mighty once convened his parliament, known then as a thing, from the Old Norse word for “assembly.” Built on Thorfinn’s orders in the eleventh century, the thing mound became the site of Dingwall’s “moot hill,” or medieval assembly ground, after Norse control of Scotland waned. The modern parking lot was first identified as the possible site of the thing mound and later moot hill by archaeologist Oliver O’Grady, of OJT Heritage. After a ground-penetrating radar survey backed up his hunch, this year’s excavations confirmed the existence of the mound. The only other mound in the United Kingdom excavated and shown to have been built as a legal assembly site is in southern England.

Point-and Shoot Obsidian Analaysis


Tuesday, December 10, 2013



Archaeologists can decipher a culture’s trade network and the distances it might have covered by tracing obsidian, used by ancient people for making tools, back to its source volcano. Until now, researchers sent the volcanic glass artifacts uncovered at sites to laboratories for analysis, with results only available months later. The time-consuming process could take up to five minutes per fragment—and there are often a lot of fragments.


University of Sheffield research fellow Ellery Frahm has successfully tested a new method for performing on-site obsidian sorting on more than 600 artifacts at two sites in Armenia. Frahm used a tool from the lab, a handheld instrument resembling a supermarket price gun, that performs X-ray fluorescence (XRF), scanning an artifact in only 10 seconds. The device discerns the concentration of certain elements in the material—such as iron and zirconium—creating a chemical signature that can be compared with nearby obsidian sources. 


obsidian-portable-x-ray-fluorescenceMoving XRF into the field, Frahm explains, could offer archaeologists real-time, on-site guidance for their excavation strategies. Critics, however, say the method sacrifices analytic precision, which would render it useless in regions that have a glut of obsidian sources, such as western Mexico.


Frahm likens the method to the preset modes on a digital camera—though the process lacks the control and precision of traditional lab methods, it provides a useful, expedient shortcut. “The preset modes allow one to take many more photos, often very good ones, much faster,” he says. “That’s not a bad thing.”

Idu: Lost City of Northern Iraq


Tuesday, December 10, 2013



Archaeologists working in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq have located the ancient city of Idu. The international team unearthed the settlement while excavating a tell along the Lower Zab River. Although Idu’s existence was known from Assyrian texts, its location was previously unidentified. 


Idu-cuneiform-mythological-scenesBeginning in the thirteenth century B.C., Idu flourished as a provincial capital of the Assyrian Empire. During this period, and also during the interval when Idu gained its independence, the settlement featured lavish royal palaces. This prosperity is attested to by ornate bricks, cylinder seals, and artworks that depict mythological scenes. Researchers ascertained the city’s identity through a series of cuneiform inscriptions. “The discovery of Idu fills a gap in what scholars had previously thought was a dark age in the history of the ancient Near East, and it helped us to redraw the political and historical map of Assyria in its early stage,” says Cinzia Pappi, an archaeologist from the University of Leipzig.

Neanderthal Smorgasbord


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trenches16 1How monotonous was Neanderthal cuisine? The bones of large herbivores found at Neanderthal sites across Europe and Asia seem to indicate that their meals consisted of one course: meat. Several new studies, however, reveal a wider variety of menu options.


Isotope analysis of bones from Kudaro 3 in the Caucasus Mountains (in a disputed area of Georgia) show that Neanderthals there dined on salmon. Fish was also on the menu in southeastern France, at Abri du Maras, where analysis of the residue left on stone tools shows that Neanderthals also ate duck, rabbit, and possibly mushrooms. And when the meals were over, Neanderthals cleaned up with toothpicks that left grooves in their teeth found at Cova Foradà in Spain.


Neanderthals may have made for good dinner companions, but maybe not everything they ate accorded with modern tastes. Research published in 2012 shows that the tartar on Neanderthal teeth contains microfossils from a wide variety of plant foods and medicines (“Neanderthal Medicine Chest,” November/December 2012). But Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest that Neanderthals may not have directly eaten these plants, but rather ate herbivores’ stomachs containing them. Before you make a face: “We know that many modern hunter-gatherers eat the stomach contents of their prey,” says Stringer. “The Inuit regarded this as a special treat.”