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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, April 15

Unusual Roman Villa Uncovered in Northern England

NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that a large villa complex with its own bathhouse has been discovered at a construction site in northern England. Keith Emerick of Historic England said the house, which has a circular central room flanked by additional rooms, is the first of its kind to be found in Britain. The house may have been modified for religious use, he added. The plans for the new construction project have been modified to conserve the ancient structure beneath an open space. To read about how residents of a villa in Gloucestershire embraced aspects of Roman living even after the end of Roman rule of Britain, go to "After the Fall."

Pottery Offers Clues to Prehistoric Honey Hunting in West Africa

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Bristol, the chemical components of beeswax were detected on about one-third of more than 450 pieces of pottery made by central Nigeria’s Nok culture some 3,500 years ago by researchers from the University of Bristol and Goethe University. Peter Breunig of Goethe University said that the team members began analyzing the residues on the pottery because very little evidence of the Nok diet survived in the region’s acidic soil. The pots may have been used to melt wax combs, or perhaps to cook and store honey. Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol noted, however, that in addition to serving as a valuable food source, honey can also be used to make wine and other beverages, and as a preservative for smoked meats. In fact, the presence of meat and beeswax was detected in some of the Nok pots. The beeswax may have been used to prepare medicines, cosmetics, or sealants, she added. To read about the possible origins of beekeeping, go to "Minding the Beeswax."

Medieval Cemetery Unearthed in Bulgaria

RADNEVO, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that nails from wooden coffins and glass, bronze, and silver jewelry have been recovered from a twelfth-century Christian necropolis in southern Bulgaria by a team of researchers led by archaeologist Plamen Karailiev of the Maritsa East Archaeological Museum. Artifacts were found in 27 of the 326 graves excavated so far. One woman was buried with glass bead necklaces, glass bracelets, bronze bracelets, and silver temple pendants. Other burials held glass bead necklaces, glass bracelets, and earrings made of copper wire. Traces of coffins have been found in 25 graves, he added. “With some small discrepancies, the individuals were buried almost one on top of the other,” Karailiev said. “There are sectors [of the cemetery] of which we can presume that they were family or clan [burial] plots.” Earlier excavations at the site uncovered fragments of a mural painted on a mud-plastered wall thought to have been part of a medieval church at the necropolis. The nearby settlement, which was part of the Byzantine Empire at the time of the burials, was occupied as early as the Neolithic period, some 7,000 years ago. Many of the graves were damaged by the construction of an irrigation canal. To read about a fragment of a Byzantine ivory icon unearthed at the fortress of Rusokastro, go to "Iconic Discovery." 

Study Confirms Age of Homo Erectus Fossils

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—According to a statement released by the American Museum of Natural History, an international team of researchers led by Ashley Hammond of the American Museum of Natural History has determined that a Homo erectus skull fragment discovered in 1974 at the East Turkana site in Kenya was accurately dated at 1.9 million years old. Some researchers had suggested that the fossil may have been washed or blown into the site from a younger fossil deposit. Geoscientist Dan Palcu of the University of São Paulo and Utrecht University said the team members reviewed the evidence and past studies, examined the region with satellite and aerial imagery, and looked for new clues on the ground in order to reconstruct the site where the fossil was found. The scientists concluded that although the fossil was likely found in an area different from the one initially reported, there was no sign of a younger fossil outcrop in the area. They also collected two additional Homo erectus fossils—a partial pelvis and a foot bone—in addition to the fossilized teeth of other mammals. Chemical analysis of the teeth indicates that Homo erectus inhabited an arid, open, and grassy land. For more on this hominin species, go to "Homo erectus Stands Alone," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2013.   

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Wednesday, April 14

Fossilized Neanderthal Footprints Found in Spain

HUELVA, SPAIN—Live Science reports that 87 fossilized footprints discovered on a beach in southern Spain after intense storms and high tides were made some 100,000 years ago by 36 Neanderthal individuals, including a group of 11 children. “We have found some areas where several small footprints appeared grouped in a chaotic arrangement,” said paleontologist Eduardo Mayoral of the University of Huelva. The children may have been playing at a watering hole, he explained. “Probably the water would not have been fresh but somewhat brackish, since we have found evidence of sea salt crystals on the surface where the footprints are found,” he added. Mayoral and his team members photographed the footprints from the air and made 3-D digital scans of each of them. Based upon their size, the team has also identified the prints of five female walkers, 14 males, and six of undetermined sex. The tracks of deer and wild boar were also preserved near the watering hole. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Scientific Reports. To read about a likely Neanderthal footprint found near the Rock of Gibraltar alongside red deer and aurochs tracks, go to "World Roundup: Spain."

Who Colonized New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century?

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND—According to a statement released by the University of Otago, analysis of nineteenth-century skeletal remains found in unmarked graves on the South Island suggest that the population was more diverse than previously thought. The South Island was the site of the colonial settlement of Milton, which was believed to have had a strong British identity, and area gold fields, believed to have been worked by people who emigrated from Guangzhou, China. Charlotte King of the University of Otago and her colleagues analyzed the chemical signatures in the people’s teeth, and their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited along the maternal line. The study indicates that colonists buried in the European cemetery came from all over the United Kingdom and Europe, and not just Britain. One person may have even come from a warm, Mediterranean climate, she added. In the Chinese cemetery, one person had mitochondrial DNA usually found in Southeast Asian islands, and another person buried with Chinese artifacts had mitochondrial DNA usually associated with Europeans, King explained. To read about nineteenth- and twentieth-century artifacts unearthed in downtown Invercargill, go to "Around the World: New Zealand."

Examining the Reason Behind Cahokia's Abandonment

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—According to a statement released by Washington University in St. Louis, Caitlin Rankin, now of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues analyzed soils around an earthen mound dated to between A.D. 1050 and 1400 at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which is located in southwestern Illinois. The ancient city, home to some 15,000 people around A.D. 1100, was surrounded by a wooden palisade made from tens of thousands of trees. It had been suggested that the city was abandoned because deforestation of the uplands surrounding Cahokia caused devastating environmental problems, including flooding in local creek drainages. But Rankin’s investigation of the Cahokia Creek floodplain revealed that the mound had been constructed on a stable ground surface. She said that while there is evidence of heavy wood use at Cahokia, and area forests might have been depleted as a result, she found no evidence of flooding. Researchers will now need to look for other reasons why Cahokia was abandoned, the team concluded. To read about a possible catalyst for Cahokia's rise, go to "Around the World: Illinois."

Tuesday, April 13

Ancient Necropolis Unearthed on Island of Corsica

ÎLE-ROUSSE, CORSICA—According to an RFI report, a necropolis made up of more than 40 tombs dated from the third to the sixth centuries A.D. have been found on the western coast of Corsica. Researchers from the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research said that the remains of adults and children were found in large amphoras that had transported wine, olive oil, and other products from Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, to the island. Such jars were usually used to bury children, the researchers explained. Some of the remains had been placed in pits dug into the rock, and some were covered with Roman terracotta tiles. The necropolis confirms that the area was inhabited long before the current village at the site was founded in the mid-eighteenth century. Construction at that time damaged many of the graves, the researchers said. A funeral complex may be located nearby, they added. To read about an Etruscan burial excavated on Corsica, go to "A Funeral Fit for Etruscans."

New Thoughts on Europe’s Cave Paintings

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Haaretz reports that Yafit Kedar and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University suggest that Europe’s Paleolithic artists may have experienced hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, while painting by torchlight in remote areas of caves. The researchers simulated deep caves entered through narrow mouths and long corridors with software created to plan ventilation for underground parking lots. They found that use of fire deep in a cave would have caused a significant drop in oxygen levels. The dark cave spaces may have been chosen, the researchers explained, because this lack of oxygen produced euphoric, transformative experiences, and perhaps even hallucinations, making them sacred spaces. The caves were thus painted, Kedar and Barkai explain, to reflect their significance. The rock face itself may have been understood as a connection to another world. To read about ritual imagery painted deep in the caves of the American South, go to "Artists of the Dark Zone."

Study Examines Evolution of Human Brain Organization

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—According to a Science News report, a new study of early human skulls suggests that more modern human–like brain structures began to evolve about 1.7 million years ago. It had been previously thought that such brain structures first arose roughly 2.8 million years ago, soon after the Homo lineage appeared. Paleoanthropologist Marcia Ponce de León of the University of Zurich and her colleagues re-created the possible outer surface of brains from impressions preserved on the inner surfaces of fossil skulls, including the 1.77-million to 1.85-million-year-old remains from the Dmanisi site in Georgia and fossils from Africa and Southeast Asia ranging in age from two million to 70,000 years old. The researchers concluded that the 1.8-million-year-old Dmanisi remains and those of the same age from Africa exhibited brains organized like those of great apes. “These people ventured out of Africa, produced a variety of tools, exploited animal resources, and cared for elderly people, as we know from the site of Dmanisi,” Ponce de León said. The study also suggests that brain organization became more modern human–like in Africa between about 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago, she added, and about 1.5 million years ago in Southeast Asia. Analysis of changes in the environment throughout this period could help scientists understand what drove the changes in brain organization. To read more about Homo erectus skulls recovered from Dmanisi, go to "Homo erectus Stands Alone," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2013.

Possible Embassy Complex Unearthed at Maya City of Tikal

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA—According to a Science Magazine report, recent investigation of an area of the Maya city of Tikal in northern Guatemala has uncovered a complex that resembles the citadel at Teotihuacan, which is located more than 600 miles away, in what is now Mexico City. Archaeologist Edwin Román Ramírez of the Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage and his colleagues said they found Teotihuacan-style weapons, some of which were made from green obsidian from central Mexico; incense burners; carvings of Teotihuacan’s rain god; and a burial with Teotihuacan-style offerings in the pyramid, its enclosed courtyard, and two nearby buildings. Ceramics found within the pyramid have been dated to around A.D. 300, or about 100 years before Teotihuacan is thought to have invaded Tikal in A.D. 378. “We can’t say for sure that the people who built this were from Teotihuacan,” Román Ramírez said. “But they were certainly people who were very familiar with its culture and traditions.” Analysis of the human remains recovered at the site could reveal where the person was raised. An elite Maya compound, whose murals had been smashed and buried, has also been discovered in Teotihuacan. The researchers suggest that the mirror-image sites reflect embassies staffed with diplomats in the two cities before the invasion. For more on recent research at Tikal, go to "Around the World: Guatemala."

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