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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, July 10

House Cat Remains Found at Medieval Village in Kazakhstan

HALLE, GERMANY—According to a statement released by Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), researchers from MLU, Korkyt-Ata Kyzylorda State University, the University of Tübingen, and Russia’s Higher School of Economics analyzed a nearly complete cat skeleton unearthed at a medieval village site in southern Kazakhstan and determined the feline was likely kept as a pet. Located along the Silk Road, the village was home to the Oghuz, who were Turkic pastoralists. Ashleigh Haruda of MLU said the eighth-century tomcat had several healed broken bones, and had likely been fed by humans because it had lost all of its teeth. She added that the feline’s remains were only recovered because the animal had been buried, in contrast to most of the other animal bones recovered from the site, which were found individually. In addition, the chemical composition of the cat bones indicates the animal was fed a diet that contained more protein than dogs whose remains have been found at the site, and to other cats that lived during the same time period. Finally, genetic analysis suggests the cat belonged to the domesticated species Felis catus Linnaeus. The keeping of a pet cat is thought to be an unusual practice for the Oghuz and may be a sign of cultural exchange brought about by contact with Silk Road traders, Haruda and her team concluded. To read about human ancestors' possible role in mass extinctions of large carnivores in East Africa, go to "Scaredy Cats."

Scientists Analyze Composition of Rome’s Clear Glass

AARHUS, DENMARK—According to a statement released by Aarhus University, scientists from the Danish National Research Foundation, Aarhus University, and the University of Münster have developed a technique to distinguish between clear glass manufactured in Egypt and in the Levant during the Roman period. Although clear glass was known in fourth-century A.D. Rome as “Alexandrian” glass, archaeologists have not found furnaces for clear glass production in Egypt. Such furnaces have, however, been found in the Levant. The new technique measures the isotopes of the rare element hafnium in the glass, which can then be matched to the sands used to make the glass, said Gry Barfod of Aarhus University. The study indicates that so-called Alexandrian glass was indeed made in Egypt. Sand from the Nile, the researchers explained, contained lime to keep the high-quality glass stable. Antimony was added to make it crystal clear. Meanwhile, in the Levant, manganese was added to the mix to produce transparent glass. To read about Saxon recycling of imported Roman glass in England, go to "Legends of Glastonbury Abbey."

Dental Decay Detected in Mesolithic Remains in Poland

WARSAW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that researchers led by Jacek Tomczyk of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University used a fluorescent camera and X-ray imaging methods to examine the teeth of a three-year-old child and two adults who died about 9,000 years ago in what is now Poland. The study revealed the beginnings of dental decay that went undetected when the bones were unearthed in the 1960s. “Traces of caries are preserved on molars, rich in furrows and depressions, with an irregular surface. It is obviously difficult to speculate whether tooth decay would develop further if the owners of the teeth had lived longer,” Tomczyk said. It had been previously thought that dental caries developed in people living in the region some 7,000 years ago, when people began farming and eating more grains. Berries, other fruits, and honey may have contributed to dental problems in people who lived during the Mesolithic, Tomczyk explained. To read about the earliest known example of dental work, go to "Paleo-Dentistry."


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Thursday, July 9

Hundreds of Stone Tools Discovered in New South Wales

GRIFFITH, AUSTRALIA—ABC News Australia reports that 271 stone tools known as bipolar flakes have been discovered at a construction site at Griffith Base Hospital. Some of the artifacts were likely moved to the site amid loads of gravel in recent times, according to archaeologist Jillian Comber, while others are believed to have been there for thousands of years, suggesting that Aboriginal people made camp in the area. "These tools were used for cutting and scraping food, cutting up plant matter, or scraping timber for wood working,” said Comber. She adds that the flakes may also have been used to make shields, canoes, and “coolamons,” a type of vessel used to carry water or food. The Griffith Local Aboriginal Land Council plans to apply to be the repository for the artifacts and to be able to decide how and where they will be kept. To read about rock art in Australia, go to “Off the Grid: Kakadu National Park.”

Cerne Abbas Giant Not Likely Prehistoric

DORSET, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that land snail shells discovered in soil samples taken from the Cerne Abbas Giant, a figure carved into a chalk hillside in southwest England, suggest that the landmark is unlikely to be prehistoric, and probably dates to the Middle Ages, at the earliest. An exact date for the landmark derived from tests using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a technique that determines when minerals in the soil were last exposed to sunlight, is expected later this year, but researchers have now identified a snail species in the samples known to have arrived in Britain sometime in the 13th or 14th centuries. "They arrived here accidentally, probably in straw and hay used as packing for goods from the continent," said environmental archaeologist Mike Allen. "Sadly, this shows the giant is unlikely to be prehistoric or Roman, and more likely dates to medieval times or later." The earliest mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant was recorded in 1694, and local folklore has long held the 180-foot chalk figure to be a fertility aid. Allen also said that the snail shell testing suggests that there have been periods in the figure's history when the giant was grown over with grass and other vegetation. To read about another chalk geoglyph in southern England, go to "White Horse of the Sun." 

DNA Study Suggests Contact Between Ancient Polynesians and South Americans

IRAPUATO, MEXICO—According to a New York Times report, a genetic study provides evidence of contact between ancient Polynesians and indigenous South Americans around A.D. 1200. Comparing the DNA of more than 800 people from Polynesian islands and South America's Pacific Coast, researchers led by Andrés Moreno-Estrada of Mexico's National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity found that some people from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, and surrounding islands have Native American ancestry that derives from individuals of the pre-Columbian Zenu culture, who lived some 800 years ago in what is now Colombia. The geneticists suggest that Polynesians journeyed to South America, bringing back Zenu individuals to the Marquesas and interbreeding with them. Alternatively, they posit, indigenous South Americans could themselves have sailed to eastern Polynesia and encountered Polynesians who had traveled there from farther east. Critics of the study noted similarities between the latter scenario and the controversial claims of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who suggested that South Americans settled Polynesia. For more on recent research on Rapa Nui, go to "Around the World: Chile."

Wednesday, July 8

Study Suggests Turkana Boy Had a Stocky Build

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—According to a statement released by New York University, researchers created a 3-D shape for the rib cage of the 1.5 million-year-old Homo erectus remains known as Turkana Boy, and employed virtual animation to investigate his breathing motion. Markus Bastir of Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Science, Daniel García-Martínez of Spain’s National Center for Research on Human Evolution, and Scott Williams of New York University then compared the reconstructed Homo erectus rib cage with those of modern humans and a Neanderthal, and found it to have a stockier shape resembling Neanderthal rib cages. The study suggests that modern humans only recently evolved a flat, tall chest, narrow pelvis, and rib cage, perhaps to optimize breathing for long-distance running and other activities requiring endurance. To read about unburied bodies found near Kenya's Lake Turkana that provide evidence of early warfare, go to "10,000-Year-Old Turf War," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2016.

Researchers Create Digital Reconstruction of Medieval Shrine

YORK, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that researchers from the University of York have digitally reconstructed a shrine dedicated to Thomas Becket as it would have looked in A.D. 1408. John Jenkins of the University of York said the team members used information from historical documents, including eye-witness accounts; surviving fragments of the shrine; and an examination of the site where the shrine stood in Canterbury Cathedral to create the reconstruction. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been engaged in a bitter dispute with King Henry II over the rights of the church when he was slain by knights in the cathedral in 1170. The researchers suggest the shrine was built over a period of about 30 years in the cathedral’s Trinity Chapel sometime between 1180 and 1220. It soon became an important medieval pilgrimage site, receiving some 100,000 visitors a year to honor Becket as a saint and a martyr. The shrine was eventually destroyed during the Protestant Reformation in 1538. To read about changes in lead pollution levels that seem to correspond to the years of Becket's assassination and Henry II's death, go to "History in Ice."