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Under Stonehenge

Wiltshire, England


Monday, December 15, 2014



As if Stonehenge weren’t spectacular enough, an unprecedented digital survey—involving aerial laser scanning, ground-penetrating radar, and other geophysical and remote-sensing technologies—has revealed that the iconic 5,000-year-old standing stones were part of a much broader Neolithic ceremonial landscape. Unveiled at the British Science Festival in September, the research has revealed 17 new monuments and thousands of as-yet-uninterpreted archaeological features, including small shrines, burial mounds, and massive pits, across nearly five square miles of the Salisbury Plain.


Top-Ten-Stonehenge-MosaicThe research is also providing new insights into already documented features. For example, geophysical surveying of the “Cursus”—a two-mile-long mound north of Stonehenge—identified two massive pits that align astronomically with Stonehenge, in addition to a series of gaps in the mound. “The pits show how the Cursus, which was constructed 400 years earlier than Stonehenge, influenced the placement of the standing stones,” explains Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford. “We think that the gaps in the Cursus would have guided the movement of people as they processed to Stonehenge, contradicting the [previous] thinking that few people approached the standing stones.” Further, remote sensing at Durrington Walls—a mile-wide ritual monument close to Stonehenge—revealed that it used to be associated with up to 60 huge standing stones, some of which may now lie under earthen banks. “In the past we had this idea that Stonehenge was standing in splendid isolation, but it wasn’t,” says Gaffney. “It’s absolutely huge.”

Seaton Down Hoard

Devon, England


Monday, December 15, 2014

Top-Ten-Seaton-Down-HoardA metal detectorist in southwest England has discovered one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever found. The Seaton Down Hoard consists of 22,000 coins, dating from the A.D. 260s through the 340s. According to Vincent Drost, a British Museum numismatist researching the coins, the hoard may represent an individual’s private savings, a commercial transaction, or a soldier’s wages.


Despite the hoard’s remarkable size, it consists exclusively of low-valued copper alloy nummi, making the entire collection worth only the equivalent of a few gold solidi. Nonetheless, it will likely prove valuable to researchers. Archaeologists believe the Seaton Down Hoard was buried in the 340s, during the rule of co-emperors Constantius II and Constans. “A detailed study of the coins will provide important information on the features of Constantinian coinage and on coin use and supply in Britannia in the mid-fourth century,” says Drost.

Buddhism, in the Beginning

Lumbini, Nepal


Monday, December 15, 2014



Excavations at Lumbini in Nepal have revealed never-before-understood details about the earliest years of Buddhism. According to tradition, Lumbini is where Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who became the venerated sage known as Buddha. Many ancient Buddhist shrines date to the third-century B.C. rule of Ashoka, a Mauryan Dynasty emperor who was key to the early spread of Buddhism. Under the remains of Mauryan temples at Lumbini (themselves topped by a succession of others), archaeologists uncovered evidence of an earlier timber structure upon which all the later temples were based. It dates to around the sixth century B.C., and the researchers, led by Robin Coningham of the University of Durham, believe this makes it the oldest Buddhist shrine in the world. This early date may also help inform the discussion of when Buddha lived. The excavation took place in the middle of an active shrine, with monks and pilgrims sometimes praying and chanting as the archaeologists worked below.

Greece's Biggest Tomb

Amphipolis, Greece


Monday, December 15, 2014



Four decades ago, after excavating hundreds of burials in the ancient Greek city of Amphipolis, about 60 miles north of Thessaloniki, Dimitris Lazaridis turned his attention to an enormous mound called the Hill of Kasta, which he believed contained a tomb or funerary monument of tremendous importance. Lazaridis’ work soon took him elsewhere, and archaeologists didn’t return to Kasta until 2012, when they began to expose the 1,500 feet of marble and limestone walls encircling the mound. This past summer the team found the entrance to the extraordinary monument Lazaridis suspected was there from the start. Work at the site is ongoing, but thus far archaeologists have uncovered a large entranceway guarded by marble sphinxes and three separate chambers. The first is paved with white marble and contains a pair of caryatids standing 10 feet high. The second chamber’s floor is covered with a mosaic of the god Pluto abducting Persephone. And the third, entered through a four-foot-wide marble door, is filled with more sculpture. The tomb dates to the last quarter of the fourth century B.C., when Amphipolis was an important city under Greece’s Macedonian rulers.

Decoding Neanderthal Genetics

Jerusalem, Israel


Monday, December 15, 2014

The first draft of the sequence of the Neanderthal genome was published in 2010 (“Neanderthal Genome Decoded,” July/August 2010). One might think that it would tell us everything we need to know about the genetic differences between modern humans and our closest evolutionary cousins. But it turns out the raw genetic code is only half the story. Just as important is epigenetics—features of the genome that determine which genes are active and which are inactive, factors that can in turn have a dramatic effect on one’s traits.


Top-10-Neanderthal-EpigenomeNow, researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, where the original sequencing took place, have found an ingenious way to investigate Neanderthal epigenetics. Their findings have provided tantalizing clues to how the bodies and brains of modern humans have evolved since splitting from Neanderthals several hundred thousand years ago. The usual methods for determining whether genes are active or inactive are highly destructive and cannot be used on scarce Neanderthal genetic material. Instead, the researchers managed to detect telltale epigenetic signs in the Neanderthal genome based on the insight that certain portions of ancient DNA tend to be misread in a distinctive way by DNA sequencers.


This reading of Neanderthal epigenetics produced a number of novel results. Two genes involved in determining body shape turned out to be highly inactivated in Neanderthals and highly activated in humans. This could help explain why Neanderthals have thicker hands, wider knee and elbow joints, and shorter limbs. “These genes are identical between us and Neanderthals,” says Liran Carmel of Hebrew University. “So we are convinced we have found a region where only the epigenetics is different.”


Many genes associated with diseases—in particular psychiatric and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia—also appear to be activated in modern humans but not Neanderthals. Carmel says the activation of these genes may have produced an evolutionary catch-22: bestowing a benefit, perhaps by changing the wiring of our brains, but also introducing an increased risk of disease.