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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, November 30

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

ROME, ITALY—Excavation of the ancient sewer system at the Colosseum with robots has discovered the pits of figs, grapes, cherries, blackberries, and nut shells, according to a BBC News report. Alfonsina Russo of the Colosseum Archaeological Park said that the foodstuffs may have been eaten while Roman spectators watched gladiator battles some 2,000 years ago. The bones of bears and big cats, which may have been used during hunting games in which the animals were forced to fight each other and the gladiators, were also found, along with the bones of dogs. Finally, some 50 bronze coins dated from about A.D. 250 to 450, and a second-century A.D. silver coin commemorating 10 years of the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, were also recovered. To read about equipment gladiators used to fight in the Roman arena, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Gladiator Weapons."

Medieval Woman’s Burial in Switzerland Yields Gold Brooch

BASEL, SWITZERLAND—Swissinfo reports that the remains of a woman who was buried wearing a golden brooch, 160 pearls, an amber pendant, and a belt with an iron buckle and silver-inlaid tongue have been found in a seventh-century A.D. cemetery in northwestern Switzerland. The excavation was prompted by local construction work. “It appears to be a hotspot, a special place where particularly wealthy people were buried,” said Basel canton archaeologist Guido Lassau. Last summer, researchers working at the site uncovered the remains of a man who had suffered a sword injury to the head. To read about an iron folding chair discovered in a seventh-century A.D. woman's grave in central Germany, go to "Take a Seat."

Researchers Return to Site of Luxury Roman Villa in England

RUTLAND, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, John Thomas of the University of Leicester and his colleagues returned to a Roman villa complex in the East Midlands and uncovered the remains of a timber barn that had been converted into a multistory stone dwelling in the third or fourth century A.D. One end of the remodeled structure featured a Roman-style bath, while the other is thought to have continued as a space dedicated to agricultural or craft work. The researchers also investigated an extension on the main building in the villa complex where a mosaic depicting scenes from the Iliad was uncovered last year. The extension is thought to have served as a dining room, or triclinium. The recent work unearthed fragments of polished marble, stone columns, and painted wall plaster, in addition to corridors with mosaic floors in geometric designs that led to the triclinium. To read about a mid-fifth century A.D. mosaic uncovered at a Roman villa in Gloucestershire, go to "After the Fall."

Mummies With Golden Tongues Found in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—According to an Ahram Online report, poorly preserved mummies equipped with golden tongues have been discovered in the Quweisna necropolis, which is located in northern Egypt’s central Nile Delta, by a team of Egyptian archaeologists. Pottery, golden sheets shaped as scarabs and lotus flowers, amulets, scarabs, and vessels made of stone were also uncovered, said Mustafa Waziri of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Some of the human remains had also been covered with golden sheets, or placed in wooden coffins bearing traces of copper, he added. This section of the Quweisna necropolis was constructed with mudbricks and consists of a vaulted main hall with three vaulted burial chambers, and a burial shaft with two side chambers made of mudbricks, explained Ayman Ashmawi of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector. “Early studies of the burials, the mummies, and the funerary collection found indicate that this necropolis was used during three different periods: the late ancient Egyptian, the Ptolemaic, and part of the Roman period,” Ashmawi said. To read about mummies with tongue-shaped gold amulets placed in their mouths, go to "Around the World: Egypt."


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Tuesday, November 29

Researchers Revisit Circumstances of Ötzi the Iceman's Death

INNLANDET COUNTY, NORWAY—Live Science reports that a new study of Ötzi the Iceman, who perished in the Italian Alps some 5,300 years ago, suggests that he might not have died in the gully where his mummified body was found. When Ötzi's body was found in 1991, archaeologists surmised that the man's body, clothing, and associated artifacts, including a backpack, bow, and quiver of arrows, had been preserved in place by the ice of a moving glacier. An arrowhead embedded in his shoulder, as well as a deep cut on his hand, indicated that Ötzi was probably killed during a conflict. Now, researchers led by archaeologist Lars Pilø of the Secrets of the Ice project propose that Ötzi died on the surface of an ice patch, and that his body and belongings were carried into the gully by periodic occurrences of ice thawing and then refreezing. The team also thinks that damage to Ötzi's equipment, which earlier researchers ascribed to combat, was likely caused by pressure from the surrounding ice. "There’s definitely been a conflict," Pilø said. "But what we say is that the damage to the artifacts is more easily explained by natural processes." Read the original scholarly article about this research in The Holocene. To read about analysis of Ötzi's clothing, go to "Ötzi's Sartorial Splendor."

How Did Paleolithic People Cook?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—A study of charred plant remains dating to as far back as 70,000 years ago has revealed how Paleolithic people prepared foods to make them more palatable, according to a Haaretz report. A team of researchers led by University of Liverpool archaeologist Ceren Kabukcu used a scanning electron microscope to analyze plant fragments processed by Neanderthals between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago in Shanidar Cave, which is located in the northwestern Zagros Mountains of Iraq, as well as plants cooked by humans around 12,000 years ago in Greece's Franchthi Cave. They found that both Neanderthals and early modern humans made foods that contained multiple ingredients, primarily pulses, such as lentils, as well as nuts and grasses. “The evidence from one fragment supports this idea that Neanderthals, much like the later Homo sapiens (early modern humans), were cooking plants," Kabukcu says. "Our evidence is also supported by previous studies that were done on plant starches trapped in the tartar preserved on Neanderthal teeth found in burials from the same [Shanidar] site." Both groups prepared their foods by soaking, pounding, and grinding the plants, many of which were naturally bitter due to the alkaloids and tannins in seed coats. Such techniques would have reduced, but not eliminated, the bitter taste, Kabukcu says. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Antiquity. To read about 31,000-year-old cooked snail shells uncovered in southwestern Spain, go to "Paleo-escargot."

Monday, November 28

What Drove Madagascar’s Megafauna to Extinction?

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR—According to a statement by the Max Planck Institute, excavations at three coastal ponds in southwest Madagascar show that large species, such as pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and nine-feet-tall elephant birds, may have gone extinct 1,000 years ago because of a number of factors. Past studies have demonstrated that Madagascar’s megafauna were hunted and butchered 2,000 years ago, when humans first settled the island, leading to speculation that overhunting may have eventually driven the species to extinction. But the team’s findings show that the disappearance of megafauna around 1,000 years ago coincided with a dramatic increase in the amount of charcoal in the archaeological record, as well as the number of bones belonging to domestic species such as cattle and dogs. “Our results suggest that occupation and alteration of space, through the burning of forests for introduced grazing species, drove the extinction of large animals on the island, rather than the mere presence of hunters,” says Max Planck archaeologist Sean Hixon. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Scientific Reports. To learn about Madagascar’s megalithic tradition, go to “Sacred Stones.” 

Bronze Age Sacrificial Pits Discovered at Sanxingdui

CHENGDU, CHINA—ArtNews reports that a range of new artifacts has been discovered at the Bronze Age Sanxingdui site in southwest China. The site, which is close to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan Basin, has been under constant excavation since 1986, when two pits filled with hundreds of jade, bronze, and ivory objects that had been ritually disposed of were discovered. Researchers have now uncovered six additional pits where people ritually sacrificed their valuables. Four of these pits date to around 1200 to 1000 B.C. and had ivory objects at the top and finely crafted bronze vessels and figurines at the bottom. One of the bronze figurines is in a kneeling position and carries on its head a ritual vessel called a Zun decorated with a dragon. The other two pits date to around 1046 to 950 B.C. One of these later pits held ivory items and small gold foil ornaments in the shape of stripes, circles, and birds—as well as a gold mask weighing more than half a pound. The final pit contained a wooden chest with traces of cinnabar pigment suggesting it had been painted red. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Antiquity. To read about a theory regarding what led to the end of the Sanxingdui civilization, go to “Seismic Shift.”