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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, December 6

Models Explore Possible Causes of Neanderthal Extinction

EINDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS—According to a report in The Guardian, a population study conducted by Krist Vaesen of Eindhoven University of Technology and his colleagues suggests the arrival of modern humans in Europe may not have triggered the demise of Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago. When modern humans arrived in Europe some 60,000 years ago, the Neanderthal population is thought to have numbered between 10,000 and 70,000 individuals. Vaesen said the models explored what might have happened to Neanderthal populations over a period of 10,000 years, factoring in the possible impact of inbreeding; natural fluctuations in birth rates, deaths, and sex ratios; and so-called Allee effects, which hamper the growth of small populations through limited mate choice and a lack of hunters and caregivers. Inbreeding, which harms the fitness of the population, may have been the sole cause of Neanderthal extinction, Vaesen explained, although in one scenario explored by the researchers, modern humans could have contributed to Neanderthal extinction by simply being present in the environment and isolating different Neanderthal groups. “It has nothing to do with competition or superiority, it’s more of a fragmentation of the habitat,” he said. For more on Neanderthals, go to "Proteins Solve a Hominin Puzzle."

Study Suggests Roman Britons Suffered from Toxic Lead Levels

MADISON, WISCONSIN—Chemistry World reports that environmental health scientist Sean Scott of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues analyzed the amount of lead in bones recovered from three cemeteries in Britain’s Roman settlement of Londinium (modern London) and found it to be 70 times higher than the level of lead found in pre-Roman bones unearthed in the Hampshire and Yorkshire regions of England. The level of lead in the bones from Londinium was high enough to have affected the health of urban Romans, Scott explained, and may have even impacted their birth rates through reduced sperm levels, stillbirths, and premature births. Scott suggests Romans were exposed to lead through lead plumbing, though it was not widely used in Roman London, lead drinking vessels, and even through the use of lead acetate as a food sweetener. Critics of the study note that bone can absorb lead and other metals from soil, making it hard to rule out contamination after death. To read about spikes in lead pollution levels that correspond to historical periods of technological development and population growth, go to "The Lead Standard."

German Ship Sunk During World War I Discovered

PORT STEPHENS, FALKLAND ISLANDS—BBC News reports that the wreckage of the SMS Scharnhorst, an Imperial German Navy armored cruiser, has been found under more than 5,000 feet of water near the Falkland Islands by a team of researchers including marine archaeologist Mensun Bound. The ship was part of Germany’s East Asia Squadron, which mainly operated in the Pacific Ocean before the outbreak of World War I. On November 1, 1914, the Scharnhorst participated in the Battle of Coronel, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,600 British sailors and two British ships off the coast of Chile. As a result, the British Royal Navy dispatched additional ships to the South Atlantic and pursued the German squadron, ultimately sinking the Scharnhorst on December 8, 1914, with more than 800 men on board, including German Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee and his two sons. In all, some 2,200 German sailors were killed in this battle. To read about an archaeological survey of the World War I battlefield at Gallipoli, go to "Letter from Turkey: Anzac's Next Chapter."

Iron Age Amulet from Egypt Unearthed in Oman

MUSCAT, OMAN—The Times of Oman reports that an Egyptian Eye of Horus amulet has been discovered at an archaeological site near the northern tip of the eastern Arabian Peninsula on the Gulf of Oman by a team of researchers from Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture. The site includes a tomb, the remains of 12 people, pottery, vessels made of stone and bronze, swords, iron arrows, and silver and gold ornaments. Sultan bin Saif Al Bakri, Director General of Antiquities, said the Eye of Horus, a symbol of royal power and good health, is the second imported necklace recovered from the site. The first features a stone inscribed with the cuneiform name of De Jolla, a Mesopotamian god of healing, and is thought to have been imported from what is now Iraq. To read about wealthy Canaanites' adoption of Egyptian decorative motifs, including the Eye of Horus, go to "Egypt's Final Redoubt in Canaan."

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Thursday, December 5

Tests Suggest Ancient Romans Imported Wood from France

ROME, ITALY—According to an Inside Science report, analysis of planks discovered in the waterlogged foundation of an ancient villa unearthed near the Tiber River in central Rome indicates that the wood was imported from France. Dendrochronologist Mauro Bernabei of Italy’s National Research Council said the 13-foot-long planks’ growth rings indicate that four of the trees were more than 250 years old when they were felled, and their growth patterns match those of trees known to have grown in the Jura Mountains of northeastern France, more than 1,000 miles away from Rome. Analysis of sapwood found in some of the planks suggests the trees were cut down between A.D. 40 and 60. The wood was likely to have been transported down the Saône and Rhône rivers to the Mediterranean Sea, and then up the Tiber River to Rome, where the demand for high-quality wood is likely to have depleted local trees. “The timber found in other important sites—Pompeii, Herculaneum—may be of foreign origin,” Bernabei added. To read about one of the Roman Empire's key ports, go to "France's Roman Heritage."

16th-Century Manuscript Attributed to Queen Elizabeth I

NORWICH, ENGLAND—A manuscript in Lambeth Palace Library has been identified as a work produced by Queen Elizabeth I, according to an announcement released by the University of East Anglia. Researcher John-Mark Philo was looking for translations of works written by the Roman historian Tacitus when he found the manuscript, which was written on a kind of paper stock favored by the Tudor queen. He identified it through a watermark including a rampant lion, the initials “G.B.,” and a crossbow countermark present on paper used for her known translations and personal correspondence. The script of the newly identified translation is a match for the elegant handwriting of one of the queen’s known secretaries in the mid-1590s, but the corrections are in the queen’s own notoriously messy handwriting, Philo said. He added that the subject matter focuses on the death of Augustus, the rise of Tiberius, and the centralization of governmental powers in a single ruler. To read about a grand country estate in Kent that was passed down to Elizabeth I, go to "The Many Lives of an English Manor House."

Silk Fabrics Detected in Neolithic Burial in Central China

ZHENGZHOU, CHINA—Xinhua reports that researchers led by Zhao Feng of the China National Silk Museum developed a technique called enzyme-linked-immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to detect the presence of silk in carbonized residue in a burial at the Neolithic Wanggou site in central China. The fabric is thought to have been used to wrap the body before it was placed in a silkworm pupa-shaped coffin for burial. Zhao thinks the shape of the coffin may have been intended to evoke rebirth after death in the same manner that a silk moth breaks through its cocoon. Gu Wanfa of the Zhengzhou Municipal Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology explained that the fabrics at Wanggou indicate that silk production was well developed in China between 5,300 and 5,500 years ago. Examination of the sample with an electron microscope revealed fine yarns woven with four-warp twisted rods, and the yarns had been dyed before they were woven into fabric, which was then “cooked” to prevent the dye from fading, Gu added. To read about a second-century B.C. silk topographical map recovered from a tomb in southeastern China, go to "Mapping the Past: Han Dynasty Map."

Wednesday, December 4

Hair Dye Bottles Found at Civil War Photography Studio Site

JESSAMINE COUNTY, KENTUCKY—The Lexington Herald Leader reports that Stephen McBride, director of interpretation at Camp Nelson, a 4,000-acre Union Army supply depot established in central Kentucky in 1863, has identified bottles that held hair dye and hair oil among the artifacts recovered from the site of a photography studio within a sutler store owned by merchant William Berkley. The studio was identified in 2015 with the discovery of a glass cover plate, a brass photograph preserver, a brass photograph mat, and bottles that held chemicals. Nine brass stencil plates, used with ink and a brush to label clothing and personal items, were also found at the site. “The portraits and the identifying stencils were important to the men to illustrate their status as both men and soldiers at that moment, but also for posterity, as they could soon be wounded or killed,” McBride said. He thinks the soldiers may have darkened their hair with dye before being photographed so that it would not appear white or gray in the finished black-and-white images. “We found a lot of them,” McBride said of the hair dye bottles. “It’s something you just don’t find on other sites.” To read about artifacts recovered from the site of a North Carolina cotton mill that was converted into a Confederate prison, go to "Cotton Mill, Prison, Main Street."

New Thoughts on the Impact of the Plague of Justinian

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND—Environmental historians Lee Mordechai and Merle Eisenberg of the University of Maryland argue that the outbreak of bubonic plague during the reign of Roman Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century A.D. was not a catastrophic event across the Mediterranean region, according to a Science News report. Historians have long blamed the Justinianic plague outbreak as a contributing factor in the decline of the Roman Empire. But Mordechai and his colleagues cite historical texts and archaeological evidence—including a lack of increase in the number of mass graves, the continued cultivation of farmland near eastern Mediterranean trade routes, few plague references in historical texts and stone inscriptions, and stable coin circulation during the sixth century—as support for the idea that the outbreak of disease had a modest impact on social structure. Additionally, samples of the Yersinia pestis bacteria obtained from sixth century skeletons have not been found to be ancestral to the strain of Y. pestis responsible for the devastation of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. To read about an earlier form of the Y. pestis bacterium that was circulating almost 4,000 years ago, go to "Bronze Age Plague," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2018.

Clay Tablet Fragments Handed Over to Iraqi Embassy

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have handed over another batch of clay tablets to officials at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C. The fragments are part of a collection of some 7,500 tablets that were excavated from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur by a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum between 1922 and 1934, under the direction of Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, who is recognized as one of the first archaeologists to excavate methodically and keep meticulous records. The tablets have since been held at the Penn Museum under a loan agreement with the government of Iraq. So far, more than 3,000 of the tablets have been repatriated. Penn Museum research associate William B. Hafford said most of them are records of traded goods that have helped scholars understand how various items were valued against each other and and against silver. This particular batch of 400 small tablet fragments, thought to have been used as rubble to support a brick floor in a house at Ur, has been difficult to study, Hafford explained. “At this point, we realize we have had them too long and that even though they carry some information, it will take many more years for specialists to do that work.” To read about a 6,500-year-old skeleton discovered during Woolley's Ur excavations, go to "Storeroom Surprise."

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