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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, September 16

Rare Butcher Shop Suggests Wider Sphere of Roman Influence in Britain

IPPLEPEN, ENGLAND—Archaeologists led by Stephen Rippon of the University of Exeter have unearthed a fourth-century A.D. butcher’s shop and possible craft center in the acidic soil of southwest England, according to a report in The Guardian. The discovery supports the idea that Roman influence stretched at least 20 miles further southwest than had been previously thought. Rippon said the abattoir likely belonged to butchers who produced high quality cuts of meat, since his team found just the heads and hooves of young cattle. Nothing would have been found, he explained, if peasant farmers had butchered their worn-out oxen. “They would have boiled down the bits that have been thrown away and made something like brawn [headcheese] out of them,” Rippon said. The fine cuts of meat could have then been stored in barrels of salted water and transported on the nearby Roman road to market. Goods such as awls, needles, combs, and hairpins made of deer antler, and perhaps even leather and textiles, are also thought to have been carried from the site, along with items crafted at a nearby blacksmith’s forge. “This all builds up a picture of Ipplepen as a settlement that is not a normal farming community but a place where craftsmen are making all sorts of things,” Rippon said. To read about a possible location for one of Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, go to "Caesar's English Beachhead."

1,000-Year-Old Painted Tomb Uncovered in China

HOHHOT, CHINA—According to a Xinhua report, a tomb thought to date the beginning of the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125) has been discovered in eastern Inner Mongolia. Topped with a capstone made of two huge pieces of imported granite, the tomb consists of a single chamber whose ceiling is decorated with paintings of cranes. Artifacts from the tomb include objects made of gold and glass. Lian Jilin of the Inner Mongolia Regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology said the tomb’s occupant was likely to have been a member of the royal family of the nomadic Khitans who ruled northern China at the time. To read about painted murals in another Liao Dynasty burial, go to "Tomb Couture."

Medieval Carving Possibly Depicting Eleanor of Aquitaine Discovered in England

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND—According to a report in the MK Citizen, a stone carving that may depict the head of Eleanor of Aquitaine was discovered in southeast England’s Bradwell Abbey during conservation work. Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine when she married King Louis VII of France and participated in the Second Crusade. After her marriage to Louis VII was annulled, she married the Duke of Normandy, who became King Henry II of England in A.D. 1154. Three of her sons from this marriage, including Richard the Lionheart, became kings of England. The carving is thought to be original to the twelfth-century abbey, where traces of medieval paint were also uncovered. For more on Richard the Lionheart's involvement in the Crusades, go to "Reimagining the Crusades."

Chalcolithic Female Figurine Found in Bulgaria

SUVOROVO, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that a six-inch-long fragment of a ceramic figurine depicting a woman’s torso has been unearthed at the site of a workshop in northeastern Bulgaria, near the coast of the Black Sea. The complete statue is thought to have stood about a foot tall when it was crafted sometime in the brief Middle Chalcolithic period, between 4700 and 4600 B.C. Vladimir Slavchev of the Varna Museum of Archaeology said few anthropomorphic figures dating to this period have been found in the region. A piece of the figurine that had been attached to its belly area had broken off, which suggests to Slavchev and his colleagues that the sculpture may have been intended to depict a pregnant woman. “It is very richly decorated with stamped lines on the front and on the back,” Slavchev said. “Various geometrical motifs were encrusted, which most probably convey the decoration of the clothing.” The figurine may have represented a priestess or Mother Goddess, he added. To read about a Paleolithic "Venus figurine," go to "World Roundup: Russia."

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Friday, September 13

Tooth Enamel Reveals Sex of Ancient Individuals Buried Hand in Hand

MODENA, ITALY—New analysis of the tooth enamel of two individuals, buried with their hands interlocked in a fifth-century A.D. necropolis, has revealed that both were men, according to a Live Science report. When the burial was discovered in northern Italy in 2009, mass media outlets assumed the individuals—dubbed the "Lovers of Modena"—were a man and a woman, though the badly preserved skeletons precluded a definitive determination of sex. However, Federico Lugli of the University of Bologna and his colleagues have found that both individuals' tooth enamel contained amelogenin isoform Y, a protein that is only present in the enamel of males. Based on this finding, the researchers suggest the burial represents an expression of commitment between the pair. While they cannot rule out a romantic relationship between the men, they noted that negative attitudes toward same-sex relationships in Late Antique Italy, as well as Christian religious restrictions in place at the time, make it unlikely those responsible for their burial positioning would have intentionally depicted such a connection. Other skeletons interred in the same cemetery show evidence of injury, perhaps indicating the necropolis was a war cemetery. If that is the case, the researchers added, the men may have been comrades or relatives who were killed during a skirmish. To read about the recent discovery of the burial of a Harappan couple in India, go to "A Plot of Their Own."

New Evidence for Hunter-Gatherer Trade in North America

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—According to a Science News report, hunter-gatherers living in North America some 4,000 years ago may have had direct trade links spanning 900 miles. A ceremonial copper object has been found surrounded by a ring of seashells at an ancient grave site on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia. Known as the McQueen shell ring, the circle of shells measures nearly 230 feet across. At its center, anthropologist Matthew Sanger of Binghamton University and his colleagues unearthed a pit containing the copper band, bits of stone tools, and tens of thousands of ash-encrusted bone and tooth fragments representing at least seven individuals. Such cremation burials are rare in the Southeast for this period, Sanger said. Chemical analysis of the copper band, which has been radiocarbon dated to between 4,300 and 3,800 years old, indicates it originated in copper mines at Lake Superior, in an area where cremation burials from this period are found more frequently. People living in the Southeast and Great Lakes regions may have gathered together at Georgia’s McQueen shell ring, Sanger explained, for seasonal ceremonies, where they feasted on fish, clams, oysters, hickory nuts, and acorns. To read about the possible function of "bannerstones" made by prehistoric Native Americans, go to "Set in Stone."

Thursday, September 12

Dental Plaque Offers Clues to Diet of Irish Famine Victims

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—According to a report in The Belfast Telegraph, analysis of dental plaque obtained from the teeth of 42 people buried in mass graves at Ireland’s Kilkenny Union Workhouse in the mid-nineteenth century has shown that the individuals' diet was consistent with historical records of what people ate during the Great Famine, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million people. Many Irish laborers were thought to have subsisted on a diet of potatoes and milk, supplemented with eggs and wheat when possible. Researchers led by Jonny Geber of the University of Edinburgh found evidence of a diet based on corn, with some oats, wheat, and milk, in the calcified plaque from the teeth of most of the individuals buried at the workhouse. Traces of egg protein were detected in the plaque of just three people. Geber explained that Ireland imported corn, known as Indian meal, from the United States as a relief food for the starving. To read about the potato late blight that caused the Great Famine, go to "World Roundup: Ireland."

Scientists Generate Virtual Skull of Modern Human Ancestor

PARIS, FRANCE—The New York Times reports the creation of a virtual skull for the last common ancestor of living modern humans. A team of researchers led by paleoanthropologists Aurélien Mounier of the French National Museum of Natural History and Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridgebased took CT scans of the skulls of 260 people living all over the world today, and also scanned the skulls of other extinct hominins, including 100,000-year-old skulls unearthed in Israel that are similar to those of living humans. The scientists then arranged the skulls on an evolutionary tree in order to predict what the skull of living humans’ common ancestor looked like some 300,000 years ago. They then compared the virtual skull with actual 300,000-year-old fossil skulls found in Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya. The differences between the virtual skull and the fossils indicate that there may have been three separate human populations in Africa, Mounier and Lahr suggest, and those from South Africa and Kenya may have merged to become the ancestors of today’s modern humans. The addition of more skulls could continue to alter the proposed virtual skull, Mounier said, adding, “There are a lot of things we can do, even without new fossils.” For more about the discovery 300,000-year-old hominin bones in Morocco, go to "Homo sapiens, Earlier Still," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2017.

2,000-Year-Old Tombs Discovered in Central China

LINGBAO, CHINA—Xinhua reports that more than 70 ancient tombs were discovered in central China during road construction. Many of the tombs were clustered in family groups, according to researchers from the Sanmenxia Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, who said the tombs’ structural characteristics and the style of the artifacts suggest they date to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220). Among the artifacts recovered were ceramic, bronze, and iron objects, as well as the seal of one of the tomb owners. To read about a silk topographic map recovered from the tomb of a Han Dynasty general, go to "Mapping the Past: Han Dynasty Map."  

Possible Pictish Cemetery Found in Scotland

ROSS AND CROMARTY, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that a large cemetery estimated to be 1,400 years old has been found on Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. Thought to have been built by the Picts, the cemetery consists of square and round barrows, or burial mounds, and enclosures that range in size from about 26 feet to more than 130 feet across. Previous work at the site has revealed features that might predate the barrows by thousands of years. “We intend to evaluate the preservation and phasing of these features,” said site director Steven Birch, “obtaining radiocarbon dates from charcoal and bone samples to tell the story of the site over time.” To read about the digital reconstruction of a Pictish carved stone slab, go to "Game of Stones."

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