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From the Trenches

The Case of the Missing Incisors

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, August 11, 2014

Siberia-Bronze-Age-BurialBioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Saskatchewan had long been fascinated by a specimen from the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project, which she has worked on since the late 1990s. It was a skull that had been excavated near Lake Baikal in Siberia in 1994, from a burial rather typical of the Early Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago. The skull stood out because the lower jaw is missing the two central incisors, and the tip of a stone projectile point is embedded just below where the missing teeth should be. Had the teeth been knocked out by the blow? Lost to disease? Impacted in the jaw? Ritually removed?

 

Lieverse and her colleagues used clinical CT and synchrotron radiation micro-CT at the university’s Canadian Light Source facility to solve the mystery. “The position of the projectile point was simply a coincidence,” she says, and the teeth hadn’t been removed. Rather, they had never been there at all. The scans show no partial teeth or space for the roots in the jaw, which points to agenesis of the mandibular incisors, a surpassingly rare genetic condition in which the teeth never form.

 

As for the projectile strike, which occurred at the time of death but likely wasn’t the cause, the scans were used to create a digital model of the tip and match it to the rest of the arrowhead, which was found in the man’s eye socket.

Dawn of a Disease

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, August 11, 2014

Chalcolithic-burial-at-Zeidan

Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic flatworms, today infects some 250 million people worldwide, causing severe pain, anemia, and even death. Recent analysis of human skeletal remains from Tell Zeidan in northern Syria has revealed that these parasites have plagued humankind for thousands of years—enabled by the same human innovations that made the area habitable for large numbers of people. Soil from a burial there, dating to more than 6,000 years ago, contained the remains of a schistosome egg, the oldest known evidence of the disease by 1,000 years. Humans can contract the disease by wading in freshwater, where the snails that host the parasites live. People at Tell Zeidan farmed wheat and barley, which would not have been possible in the arid region without irrigation systems. It is these freshwater systems that the researchers believe allowed schistosomiasis to spread. “This discovery might be among the oldest evidence of man-made technology inadvertently causing disease outbreaks,” says study coauthor Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge.

The Dovedale Hoard

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dovedale-Hoard-EnglandArchaeologists from Britain’s National Trust have unearthed a hoard of late Iron Age and Roman coins in Reynard’s Kitchen Cave in Dovedale, Derbyshire. The initial discovery of four coins was made by a local climber seeking shelter in the cave during a rainstorm. Archaeologists have since retrieved a total of 26 gold and silver coins, all of which predate the Roman invasion of Britain in a.d. 43. While the bulk of the hoard is attributed to the Iron Age Corieltavi tribe, at least three coins are of Roman origin—the first instance of coins from these two civilizations having been found buried together. The location of the hoard is also unexpected, explains National Trust archaeologist Rachael Hall. “Coin hoards of this era in Britain have been found in fields and other locations but, as far as we know, not in a cave,” she says. “We may never know why the coins were buried here, but this discovery adds a new layer to what we are learning about Late Iron Age activity.”

An Ancient Andean Homecoming

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 11, 2014

Paracas-Textile-Gothenbourg-Shroud

In the 1930s, a Swedish diplomat smuggled dozens of 2,000-year-old textiles out of Peru. Now the Swedish city of Gothenburg is returning the entire collection. The most spectacular example, known as the Shroud of Gothenburg, depicts a shaman flying through the air, animals as diverse as condors and shrimp, and crops such as corn, peanuts, and beans. Pontifical Catholic University of Peru archaeologist Krzysztof Makowski points out that figures on the edge of the piece seem to mark the 365 days of the solar year. “The decorations are our main source for decoding prehistoric Andean religious beliefs,” he says. “Textiles were the most technologically complex artifacts in Andean prehistory.”

Saving the Golden House

By MARCO MEROLA

Monday, August 11, 2014

Neros-Golden-HouseThe Domus Aurea, or “Golden House,” is one of the most important monuments in Rome, but it is also at great risk. Built by the emperor Nero between A.D. 58 and 64, the staggering property in the heart of imperial Rome might have sprawled across as many as 300 acres, though its true extent is difficult to judge. The main villa of the complex has more than 300 rooms, including an octagonal dining room with a revolving domed roof, walls inlaid with jewels and gold, ceilings covered in mosaics, and brightly colored frescoes on nearly every wall and vaulted ceiling. But for all its splendor, the Domus Aurea has been closed since 2005 for safety reasons—and a ceiling vault collapsed in 2010. Persistent problems with drainage and moisture threaten both its structural stability and its decorations. Recently, the archaeological superintendency of Rome embarked on the last phase of an ambitious restoration project. “We hope,” says superintendent Mariarosaira Barbera, “that the Domus Aurea can be visited again by 2018, and that it will last another 2,000 years.”

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