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Digs & Discoveries

Mexican Star Power


Monday, August 22, 2022

SO22 Digs Mexico Templo Mayor StarfishSO22 Digs Mexico Templo Mayor Jaguar DepositAztec rulers were fascinated by a particular variety of starfish whose orange-and-brown coloration resembled one of their most venerated symbols of power—the jaguar. The remains of 164 of these starfish have recently been found in a ritual offering dating to about 1500 in the Templo Mayor complex at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. When they began excavating the deposit, archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of a female jaguar lying in a bed of thousands of seashells and pieces of coral. Further digging revealed fragments of starfish. Most were largely decomposed, but one starfish remained intact because it had been flattened into the soil, like a pressed flower. The starfish, Nidorellia armata, also known as the chocolate chip star due to its dark brown spots, is found in the Pacific Ocean. “The starfish’s coloration looks like a jaguar’s fur,” says archaeologist Miguel Báez Pérez of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “This is probably what attracted the Aztecs to it.” He adds that its presence in Tenochtitlan speaks to the Aztec conquest of the Pacific coast under the emperor Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502). Starfish have been found before at the Templo Mayor—Aztec rulers kept them alive in shallow pools—but never this many in one place.

Heart of the Matter


Monday, August 22, 2022

SO22 Digs Wales Pendant REVISEDA personal symbol of Catholic faith dating to the mid-sixteenth century has been found in Llangeler, Carmarthenshire, in western Wales. The silver-gilt pendant depicts a heart with a bleeding wound representing one of Christ’s wounds. The artifact dates to a time during the Tudor period when adherents of the Church of England clashed mightily with Roman Catholics, who were infuriated by King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. “Archaeological finds such as the Llangeler pendant tell us about the individual continuities and responses to faith during this period,” says Mark Redknap, head of collections and research at National Museum Wales.

Romans Go Dutch


Monday, August 22, 2022

SO22 Digs Netherlands Roman BlockA Roman sanctuary unearthed at a clay extraction site in the Netherlands is giving researchers insights into life on the empire’s northern boundary. Discovered in the town of Herwen-Hemeling, the sanctuary was used between the first and fourth centuries A.D. by soldiers along the Roman Limes, the outermost edges of the empire. Archaeologists found remnants of two temples, sculptures and reliefs, evidence of animal sacrifices, various artifacts, and an area with dozens of votive stones—inscribed altars dedicated by Roman generals to gods such as Hercules Magusanus, Mercury, and Jupiter Serapis.


Project leader Eric Norde of RAAP Archaeological Consultancy says that, based on pottery sherds that match the wheel-thrown variety used by Romans, not the handmade pottery of local Batavians, it seems that the sanctuary was primarily used by Roman soldiers. Some of them had connections to distant corners of the empire. For example, Norde has identified inscriptions mentioning a high-ranking officer from Africa and the unit Cohors II Asturum, which was based in northern Spain. “In Roman times, the Netherlands were just the bloody middle of nowhere, and here we find traces of Roman soldiers coming out of Africa, out of Spain,” Norde says. “It’s just amazing.”


SO22 Digs Netherlands Roman Altars

Surveying Samnium


Monday, August 22, 2022

SO22 Digs Italy Samnite HillfortBecause they lived in isolated mountain settlements rather than cities, the pre-Roman Samnite people have been hard to detect in Italy’s archaeological record. A new survey of the vast territory that scholars believe they once inhabited, however, has located an extensive system of Samnite hillforts. University College London archaeologist Giacomo Fontana scoured lidar images covering an area of 5,900 square miles in south-central Italy for traces of ancient ramparts and walls. He then visited nearly 150 sites to document these features on the ground.


Thus far, Fontana has identified 95 previously unknown hillforts and other types of archaeological sites stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea, some of which may date to as early as the sixth century B.C. While hillforts along the Adriatic coast appear to have been central meeting places for populations that lived in the surrounding areas, he says, Samnite sites on the Tyrrhenian coast were much smaller and seem to have been occupied seasonally. In the fourth century B.C., the hillforts were central to the Samnites’ resistance to Roman expansion. “Although they were monumental, many of these fortifications were made hurriedly in a period of crisis during the war against Rome,” Fontana says. “Some walls on steep slopes were built directly on top of the bedrock.” By the late third century B.C., the majority of the hillforts had been abandoned as the vanquished Samnites fell under Roman control. 


SO22 Digs Italy Hillfort Lidar

Australia's Blue Period


Monday, August 22, 2022

SO22 Digs Australia Rock ArtSO22 Digs Australia bark beltFor generations, Aboriginal artists of Australia’s West Arnhem Land region have used naturally occurring red, yellow, and white pigments to create their distinctive rock art. The area has no natural source of blue pigment. Scholars had believed that it wasn’t until the late 1920s that artists there first began using laundry blue, a dye introduced by Europeans, to create rock art featuring vibrant blue hues. In powder form, laundry blue was used to brighten white textiles.


Now Griffith University archaeologist Emily Miller and her team have determined that Aboriginal artists were using laundry blue in West Arnhem Land at least a generation earlier than previously thought. The team found that fiber baskets and bark belts with blue accents were collected at a mission that existed for just a few years around 1900 in what is now Arnhem Land’s Kakadu National Park. Aboriginal artists in the area evidently already had access to the exotic blue dye. Miller points out that blue has a strong association with the life force of the Rainbow Serpent, an important creator being in many Aboriginal belief systems. “By incorporating this new vivid pigment in objects and rock art,” she says, “the artists were tapping into this life force.”