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From The Trenches

Peru’s Mysterious Infant Burials

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Friday, October 05, 2012

burialasThe ancient Peruvian site of Pachacamac is known to have been an important pilgrimage destination for sick travelers seeking cures during the Inca period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But the site had been occupied since as early as A.D. 200. Between roughly A.D. 900 and the beginning of the Inca period, the Ychsma culture inhabited Pachacamac. Archaeologists know primarily about Ychsma rulers, who built pyramidal palaces filled with simple, secular items related to weaving and animal husbandry. When a local lord died, the members of his household would be entombed in his palace, and his successor would build a new pyramid nearby.

This spring archaeologists discovered a massive tomb at Pachacamac. The oval-shaped structure contains the remains of 36 adults and 43 children, all buried in the fetal position. Around the perimeter of the tomb’s reed roof were the remains of a dozen infants with their heads pointed toward the center of the 63-foot-long burial chamber below. Researchers estimate the tomb dates to about a.d. 1000 based on the style of pottery accompanying the burials. Other grave goods include gold and copper bracelets, wooden masks, and canine remains.

Peter Eeckhout, an archaeologist at the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, hopes the new find will illuminate the “social organization of the common people, which is, in our opinion, reflected in their burial practices.” To that end, he is attempting to discern if the infants atop the tomb were sacrificed or if they died of natural causes. Further, dating of the burials found in the chamber will determine whether the structure was a collective tomb reopened over successive generations for new burials or if all the bodies were entombed at the same time. 

Pharaoh’s Port?

By MATI MILSTEIN

Friday, October 05, 2012

pharaoh-port.jpgA 2,300-year-old harbor has been uncovered off the coast of the Israeli city of Acre. An Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and University of Rhode the only one in a protected natural bay.

 

“Recently, a find was uncovered that suggests we are excavating part of [Acre’s] military port,” says Kobi Sharvit, director of the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit. “We know the pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus built a harbor for his fleet at this time. Usually military ships were kept out of the water in ‘shipshades’ like what we found here.” The size and design of the structure suits warships from that period. Large mooring stones, pottery vessels, and metallic objects, many of military function, were also found. Initial examination reveals the items originated across the eastern Mediterranean, including at Aegean Sea islands such as Knidos, Rhodes, and Kos. Sharvit’s team will next attempt to determine when the harbor was destroyed. 

 

High Rise of the Dead

By ROGER ATWOOD

Friday, October 05, 2012

deadLike builders everywhere, the ancient Zapotec made the most of valuable real estate by building up, rather than out. At Atzompa, near the southern city of Oaxaca, Mexican archaeologists discovered three burial chambers stacked one on top of the other. Dating from a.d. 650 to 850, the unusual vertical design allowed builders to take advantage of the tombs’ breezy hilltop location, with the lowest tomb built into the ground and two later chambers erected above it. The upper tombs were stripped of human remains, probably in antiquity, but whoever had ventured into the complex seems to have missed the basement tomb—it was sealed off with boulders and mud bricks, says archaeologist Eduardo García of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. In the lowest tomb, archaeologists found a skeleton, apparently that of a male, and funerary offerings including a ceramic head painted in a vivid red pigment. Ceramic offerings showed little variation across levels, suggesting to García they may have held three successive generations of rulers. But the tomb’s most dazzling feature is a mural with designs representing a jaguar paw print and an I-shaped ball court—another sign that Atzompa, with at least three ball courts, was an important center for the sport, in which men bounced hard rubber balls off their hips. The mural “is exceptionally well preserved,” says García. 

Diagnosis of Ancient Illness

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Friday, October 05, 2012

illnessThe Black Death, brucellosis, leprosy: The pathogens that cause these diseases have been identified in ancient remains by their DNA. But the presence of such DNA doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who carried it was sick. For example, one can carry the bacterium that causes tuberculosis for years without suffering from a serious cough, fever, and weight loss.

 

In the case of three well-preserved 500-year-old mummies found in 1999 on high-and-dry Llullaillaco peak in Argentina, forensic examination and DNA tests suggested that one of them—a 15-year-old girl known as the “Llullaillaco Maiden”—suffered from a lung infection. But the DNA was degraded and the finding wasn’t definitive. Recently, forensic pathologist Angelique Corthals of Stonybrook University noticed what looked like traces of blood and mucus around the maiden’s mouth. She and her colleagues used swabs to take samples, hoping to determine where in the body the blood had come from. The team employed a technique called shotgun proteomics, used in modern medicine to look for biomarkers of diseases such as cancer, which involves separating and identifying specific proteins. “Lo and behold, we actually found a lot,” she says. “We didn’t expect so many proteins would survive 500 years. We saw a whole profile of the body’s immune system.” 

 

Samples from the maiden showed the presence of several proteins strongly associated with severe, chronic lung inflammation. Alongside the DNA and other tests, the protein profile clearly showed the maiden suffered from a lung infection at the time of death, caused by the genus of bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

 

Proteomics has several advantages over DNA testing in identifying ancient diseases. Proteins degrade more slowly than DNA. The technique is also cheaper and less susceptible to contamination by modern sources. And because proteomics shows immune response to active disease, it can in some cases be used to infer cause of death. But not for the maiden—she was a sacrifice. 

Running Guns to Irish Rebels

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Friday, October 05, 2012

irish rebelsAfter 14 months of planning, a crew has recovered two iron anchors from the wreck of a German ship that, in 1916, attempted to deliver arms to Irish Republicans. The Aud carried one million rounds of ammunition and 20,000 arms for use in the Republicans’ Easter Rising to free Ireland from British rule. When the Aud mistakenly landed more than 60 miles south of its intended destination, the British navy seized the ship. After being caught, the German captain chose to scuttle the boat off the coast of County Cork.

 

“Very little of the Aud actually survives, as it was depth-charged and used for target practice a number of times in the past,” says archaeologist Laurence Dunne, who helped lead the recovery effort. All that remains intact besides the anchors—one of which weighs half a ton, while the other is just less than two tons—is a section of the bow and a boiler. Dunne estimates it will take three to four years to complete conservation work on the anchors. 

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