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Digs & Discoveries

Early Adopters

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Digs Ethiopia Beta SamatiThe remains of a Christian basilica dating to the fourth century A.D. have been discovered at the site of Beta Samati, which may once have been an important religious and commercial center of the Aksum Empire in northern Ethiopia. The Aksumites, who embraced Christianity around A.D. 325, were important Red Sea trading partners with the Byzantine Empire until the Aksum Empire collapsed in the ninth century. Archaeologists discovered a number of artifacts, including stamp seals, coins, possible trading tokens, incense burners, and a stone pendant in the shape of a cross, that suggest the site was used for both administrative and religious purposes. “The basilica seems to have arrived in Ethiopia as a Christian architectural form,” says archaeologist Michael Harrower of Johns Hopkins University, “but it may also have retained some associations with bureaucratic functions that it had in Rome.” Bovine figurines and a gold and carnelian ring engraved with a bull’s head were also uncovered at the site, suggesting that indigenous pagan beliefs survived alongside Christianity. “People are worshipping multiple gods and switching back and forth,” Harrower says. “There appears to have been a lot of flux here in terms of religious tradition.” Digs Ethiopia Single Line

Protecting the Young

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Digs Ecuador SkullThe remains of infants buried wearing the craniums of older children as helmets have been excavated at the site of a ritual and funerary complex belonging to the pre-Columbian Guangala culture of coastal Ecuador. The burials are believed to date to around the first century B.C. According to University of North Carolina at Charlotte archaeologist Sara Juengst, natural disasters in the ancient Andean world often prompted dramatic reactions, including the sacrifice of children. In this case, the infants may have been sacrificed in an attempt to end environmental degradation and drought resulting from a possible volcanic event attested to by ash discovered at the site. However, archaeologists also found lesions on the infants’ skeletons, suggesting they were in chronic poor health. “They may have died of illness,” Juengst says, “but I wondered about the children who provided the additional craniums.” She suggests that these older children may have undergone a ceremony to induct them into full personhood in Guangala culture before their death, while the infants had not. Juengst believes that the skulls of deceased older relatives may have been exhumed and placed on the heads of the infants to provide spiritual protection against whatever fate was believed to befall those who died before reaching this milestone.

Bird on a Wire

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Digs England Hawk VervelA seventeenth-century silver hawking ring called a vervel has been uncovered in a field near the town of Harwich, on the southeast coast of England. An inscription on the vervel links the artifact to a man named Thomas Playters, a member of the gentry who bore the title Baronet of Sotterley. The ring would have been placed on a hunting raptor’s leg, to attach the bird to a perch via a line. “Vervels are very helpful items when it comes to tracing individuals through history, especially when they are inscribed,” says Sophie Flynn, finds liaison officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme at Colchester and Ipswich Museums. She notes that while most vervels discovered in Britain are made of silver, those crafted from copper and bronze do turn up as well. Finding more examples made from cheaper materials may help determine to what extent hawking was—or was not—the exclusive preserve of the upper classes.

Tool Time

By JASON URBANUS

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Digs England Havering HoardAn extraordinary collection of bronze tools and weapons was recovered at a construction site near the Thames in East London. Dubbed the Havering Hoard, the assemblage comprises 453 artifacts dated to between 900 and 800 B.C., making it the largest Bronze Age hoard discovered in London. The artifacts, including axes, spearheads, swords, and woodworking tools, were found buried close together in four separate pits within an ancient enclosure. Most were partially broken or damaged in antiquity. Some of the axes are of a style that originated on the European continent, suggesting that the tools were either traded across the English Channel or brought by immigrants to Britain. Researchers are stumped as to why these artifacts were so carefully buried. One theory is that they may represent the stockpile of a local metallurgist, who had set aside the broken bronze objects for safekeeping with the intention of recycling them into new objects.

Field of Tombs

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Digs Greece Excavation OverheadDigs Greece RingDigs Greece Hathor PendantFor thousands of years, in a field next to the site of the Palace of Nestor in Pylos in mainland Greece, tens of thousands of watermelon-sized stones protected two Bronze Age tombs dating to between 1600 and 1500 B.C., the very beginning of the Mycenaean era. After more than a year and a half of removing the stones—which were the remains of the tombs’ collapsed roofs—a team from the University of Cincinnati led by archaeologists Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis unearthed the two beehive-shaped, or tholos, tombs, which contained gold jewelry and multiple skeletons. A gold ring, which was found in the smaller of the two tombs, depicts a unique scene of bovines and barley. A gold pendant depicting the Egyptian goddess Hathor was found in the larger tomb. “Such imported objects are exotica that were highly prized,” says Davis. For example, adds Stocker, “It’s not impossible that the people who included the pendant with the Pylos burials understood that in Egypt Hathor was a protectress of the dead. These things are not just bric-a-brac, but objects collected with an understanding of their meaning." In addition to the gold ring and pendant, the team also recovered thousands of flakes of gold foil. At this point, the researchers aren’t certain what the original purpose of the flakes may have been, but suggest it’s possible that certain bodies were covered with gold foil.

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