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From the Trenches

A Prehistoric Cocktail Party

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Thursday, February 07, 2013

cetamura-del-chianti-grape-seedsThe 2012 holiday season brought news of several exciting finds from across Europe that make up a veritable cocktail party—including wine, beer, and cheese—of archaeological evidence.


In a 2,000-year-old, 100-foot-deep well at the site of Cetamura del Chianti in Tuscany, Italy, archaeologists from Florida State University found 153 grape seeds. The pips date to the period shortly after the Romans claimed the site from the Etruscans. The researchers have identified the grapes as Vitis vinifera, or the wine grape. Because the seeds were not burned, they might carry preserved DNA that could offer insight into the beginnings of viticulture in the region now famous for its bold, fruity reds. “People are going to be interested in the variety of grapes we might be able to identify,” says archaeologist Nancy Thomson de Grummond.

 

Meanwhile, in western Cyprus, a domed, mud-plaster structure found at the site of Kissonerga-Skalia appears to have been used as a Bronze Age kiln to dry malt for brewing beer. Archaeologist Lindy Crewe of the University of Manchester in England and her team excavated the nearly 4,000-year-old oven, uncovering ashy deposits containing carbonized fig seeds, mortars and other grinding implements, and juglets. They also found sherds of a large clay pot that they believe was a pithos, a vessel in which a fire was lit and used as an indirect heat source within the kiln. Malt, the team hypothesizes, might have been stored in the juglets while they were in the kiln, and then removed to perform the rest of the brewing process.

 

Finally, new data indicate that sherds from vessels used as sieves, dating back to the sixth millennium B.C. in Poland, have residue of dairy fats on them, suggesting they were used in the earliest known instance of cheese-making. Researchers at the University of Bristol confirmed what Princeton archaeologist Peter Bogucki had suspected for 30 years—that Neolithic farmers in Europe whose settlements were dominated by remains of cattle were dependent on those animals for more than meat.


Taken together, the finds, spanning thousands of years and distant locations, suggest that tastes may not have changed all that much over the millennia.

Minoan Mountaintop Manse

By YANNIS STAVRAKAKIS

Thursday, February 07, 2013

anatoli--minoan-villaIn 1898, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans visited a small plateau near the town of Ierapetra in southeastern Crete, where he documented in his now-lost diary the remains of a Minoan fort. For almost a century there was no further exploration of the site, called Anatoli, until last summer, when a team from the University of Athens began digging there. Over more than a month, the team unearthed new evidence suggesting that the structure was not, in fact, a defensive fort, but rather a well-preserved two-story villa dating to the New Palace period (1600–1450 B.C.). In addition to walls more than seven feet high, archaeologists also uncovered an impressive stone facade, a room filled with large storage pithoi (ceramic containers), a rock-crystal bead, a bronze ax, and a pillar crypt—a distinctively Minoan ritual structure. Rural villas of this type have been uncovered in Crete before, but they were all situated in the lowlands and plains. Thus the Anatoli villa, at almost 9,000 feet, is only the second to be found at such a high altitude. Excavation director Yiannis Papadatos suggests that it likely functioned as a regional administrative and economic center. Until now, Minoan scholars have focused largely on the island’s lowlands and coastline. In the coming seasons, the team hopes to further explore the role of Minoan mountaintop settlements.

Mapping Maya Cornfields

By KATHERINE SHARPE

Monday, February 11, 2013

tikal temple jaguar mayaArchaeologists have wondered for decades how the ancient Maya, who maintained large cities in hilly territory covered with rain forest and thin soil, were able to produce enough food to support their numbers. “That’s the Maya mystery,” says Richard Terry, a Brigham Young University soil scientist whose work explores the agricultural methods of the civilization. In an excavation at Tikal, Guatemala, once a Maya settlement of some 60,000 people, Terry’s interdisciplinary team is constructing a map of where and when the 115-square-mile site was planted with corn, one of the Maya’s staple crops. Corn leaves distinctive traces in the soil, which the team revealed using mass spectrometry. Understanding how the Maya made use of the land could reveal how they fed their large populations and whether agricultural shortfalls hastened the decline of the civilization.


The findings, published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, show evidence that the Maya planted corn in lowland areas where there was more soil, and that agriculture gradually spread up-slope to thinner soils, where erosion eventually undermined productivity. The next question, says Terry, is whether the Maya developed the capability to cultivate corn in the low-lying wetlands, or bajos, that ring the site. If the Maya did possess a “lost technology” for growing corn in swampy conditions, the Maya crop mystery could constitute a new puzzle, as well as, perhaps, prove useful to modern agriculture.

Inside a Painted Tomb

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, February 11, 2013

maya-tomb-palenque-temple-20A team of archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History has entered a brilliantly painted Maya tomb inside Palenque’s Temple 20, 13 years after it was first discovered, following consultation with dozens of specialists on how best to conserve the find. The tomb is believed to hold the remains of K’uk Bahlam I, the founder of the city’s ruling dynasty, who came to the throne in A.D. 431. In 2011, a camera was lowered through a small hole in the tomb’s ceiling, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the murals (see “A Peek Inside Two Secret Chambers,” September/October 2011). The paintings, which may depict the nine lords of the Maya underworld, will be stabilized and conserved before the tomb is further excavated.

Life (According to Gut Microbes)

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Monday, February 11, 2013

bifidobacterium-breveEach of us is home to a vibrant community of gut microbes, the bacteria that live in our digestive systems. Because these bacteria often reflect the diets of their hosts, scientists are examining coprolites—fossilized feces—to learn more about the microbiomes, and lives, of ancient humans.

 

For instance, the abundance of the bacteria Bifidobacterium breve—commonly found in the stool of recently breastfed children—in a 1,400-year-old sample taken from La Cueva de los Chiquitos Muertos (“The Cave of Dead Children”) in northern Mexico suggests the coprolite had come from a young child. The sample also contained a large quantity of a bacteria called Prevotella, which indicates a diet heavy in carbohydrates but relatively low in proteins.

 

Cecil M. Lewis, Jr., a molecular anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, and his team also found Treponema in both ancient samples and modern rural populations. He thinks this implies that both groups have diets heavy in raw, fibrous foods. The microbe, however, does not appear in the stool of urban or Western populations, which might be attributable to more sanitary living conditions. “As we learn more about how well these microbiome profiles predict aspects of the human condition,” says Lewis, “we can use the information to better understand the past.”

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