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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, September 19

Mosaic Uncovered in Israel’s “Burnt Church”

HAIFA, ISRAEL—According to a Live Science report, a well-preserved mosaic floor dating to the late fifth or early sixth century B.C. has been uncovered at the site of a church in the ancient city of Hippos, which is located in northern Israel on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa said images of loaves of bread, fish, fruit, birds, and baskets in the mosaic could refer to two miracles described in the Christian New Testament, in which Jesus multiplied a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands of people, and his disciples collected leftovers. Although the purported location of the miracles is unclear, he added, the church may have been built in Hippos to mark the site where the miracles were believed to have occurred. Greek inscriptions in the mosaic indicate the structure was built by the church fathers for a martyr named “Theodoros.” The church was burned to the ground in the beginning of the seventh century during the Sasanian conquest. To read about a unique bronze mask found at HIppos, go to "Mask Metamorphosis."

Tiwanaku Vessels Unearthed at Bolivian Temple

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA—Ceramic vessels decorated with images of fish and birds have been discovered at the Kalasasaya temple at Tiwanaku, a spiritual and political center of the eponymous Tiwanaku culture located near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, according to an Associated Press report. Julio Condori of the Archaeological Investigations Center of Tihuanaco said the pots dated to between A.D. 400 and 600, and could help researchers understand the role of the Kalasasaya temple in Tiwanaku society. The vessels were arranged in a circle before they were buried, and may have been part of a funeral offering for a member of the nobility. To read about the use of hallucinogens in Tiwanaku rituals, go to "Half in the Bag." 

DNA Offers Clues to Denisovans’ Appearance

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Guardian reports that researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have produced a portrait of a young Denisovan woman based upon analysis of DNA extracted from her fossilized finger bone. Liran Carmel, David Gokhman, and their colleagues examined “methylation maps” for Denisovan, Neanderthal, and modern human genomes to track how actively different genes were expressed in their anatomies. Once the researchers had compiled a list of genes that were likely to have been active in this Denisovan genome, they compared the list to a medical database of human genetic disorders to look for clues as to how gene activity might affect skeletal structure and thus, the young woman’s appearance. In all, the researchers identified 56 areas of anatomy in which Denisovans differed from Neanderthals and modern humans. Denisovan skulls were probably wider than Neanderthal and modern human skulls, with longer jaws, which would have allowed for larger teeth, like the three recovered from Siberia’s Denisova Cave. Gokhman said that understanding what Denisovans looked like could help scientists understand how they adapted to their environment, and how those adaptations may have been passed on to people living today. To read about DNA analysis that revealed interbreeding between Denisovans and Neanderthals, go to "Hominin Hybrid," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2018.


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Wednesday, September 18

Germanic Warrior’s Wooden Shield Conserved

HALLE, GERMANY—According to a report in The Art Newspaper, conservators have determined that a fragment of a painted wooden warrior’s shield discovered in a Germanic chief’s tomb in central Germany is 1,700 years old. Conservator Christian-Heinrich Wunderlich of the Landesmuseum in Halle said microscopic examination of the wood fragment revealed that the surface had been prepared with chalk and lime to create a smooth surface for layers of paint such as “Egyptian blue,” which was widely available in the Roman Empire, and vermillion, which was only available in a few places in the Mediterranean. “These pigments were not cheap and must have been Roman imports,” Wunderlich said. The shield would have measured about four feet across, and was probably painted on both sides, he added. The chief’s tomb also contained a gold neck ring and brooch, silver belts, spurs, a knife, coins, arrowheads, drinking glasses, a bronze vessel for mixing wine, and a bronze stool. Wunderlich explained that some of these objects may have been received as payment from the Romans for acting as a mercenary or conducting a looting expedition, while other items are thought to have been made in Scandinavia. To read about the Roman conquest of Germany, go to "The Road Almost Taken."

Tests Indicate Iceland's Walruses Disappeared After Viking Arrival

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Tange Olsen and Xénia Keighley of the University of Copenhagen radiocarbon dated the remains of 34 walruses recovered in western Iceland in an effort to learn if the island’s unique subspecies died out after the establishment of a permanent Viking settlement around A.D. 874, according to a New Scientist report. The study suggests that three of these animals lived during the Viking period, with the latest death occurring sometime between 1213 and 1330. It had been previously suggested that the walrus hunt described in a twelfth-century Icelandic saga, and the walrus skull and tusks sent to Canterbury to commemorate the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, may have involved animals that lived somewhere other than Iceland. The new dates suggest, however, that these animals could have been locals. In addition, to test the idea that the Icelandic walrus population simply left the island after the establishment of the Viking settlement and joined another walrus community, Olsen and Keighley’s team analyzed mitochondrial DNA obtained from the bones. They found that the Icelandic walrus subspecies is genetically distinct from walrus communities now living in other areas of the North Atlantic. “That was highly surprising,” Olsen said. To read about the surprising discovery of Pacific walrus bone fragments in a coffin with the remains of eight 19th-century humans, go to "World Roundup: England." 

Study Tracks Gestures Shared by Great Apes

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND— reports that researchers led by Kirsty Graham of the University of St. Andrews have determined that as many as 90 percent of 70 identified communicative gestures used by wild bonobos and chimpanzees are shared by the two species, a rate much higher than would be expected to occur by chance. Such gestures include stroking the mouth to request food and raising arms to request grooming, Graham explained. The researchers asked human experiment participants to watch video clips of ten signs commonly used by chimpanzees and bonobos, and asked them to choose a correct meaning for each sign from four options. Some gestures, such as stroking of the mouth to request food, were identified correctly by the study participants more than 80 percent of the time. They correctly identified other signals about 52 percent of the time, Graham said. An earlier study conducted by University of St. Andrews psychologists identified gestures used by great apes in human children between the ages of one and two, and found that almost 90 percent of the 52 gestures used by the human children were shared with chimpanzees. Graham and her colleagues suggest today’s great apes and modern humans may have inherited a basic sign language from their last common ancestor. To read about why humans can throw harder and more accurately than great apes, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Tuesday, September 17

Defenses of Iron Age Hillfort Uncovered in England

SHROPSHIRE, ENGLAND—Excavations at Nesscliffe, an Iron Age hillfort in western England thought to date to 500 B.C., have unearthed the fort's inner rampart as well as rare guard chambers at its northeastern entrance, The Shropshire Star reports. The fort's location near the steep cliffs at Oliver's Point made it easily defendable. "There is a possibility that this was a highly strategic point," said University of Oxford archaeologist Gary Lock. "It would have been seen from miles around and would have given a great viewpoint for those inside, it would have been very spectacular." Measuring 26 feet wide, the rampart wall was faced with stone and filled with smaller stones and sand. Test pits yielded second-century A.D. Roman pottery from a later occupation level. To read about other defensive structures in the British Isles, go to "Letter from Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age."

Scientists Trace Origins of Bronze Age Tin

MANNHEIM, GERMANY—According to a report in The Times of Israel, an international team of scientists led by Daniel Berger of the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry and his retired colleague Ernst Pernicka analyzed the composition of tin ingots recovered from five Late Bronze Age underwater archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean in order to trace their origins. It had been previously thought that the tin used in bronze production in the Levant in the second millennium B.C. was imported from central Asia, since very little raw tin exists in the region. Comparison of the composition of the various samples revealed, however, that tin ingots found at three sites off the coast of Haifa, Israel, are likely to have been mined in southwest England, in what are now the areas of Cornwall and Devon. Tin from mines in Anatolia, central Asia, and Egypt was ruled out as a source for these samples because it was formed either much earlier or later. The researchers suggest that amber, glass, and copper were probably also traded along complex routes connecting Europe and the eastern Mediterranean much earlier than had been believed. For more on the importance of southwest England as a metal exporter, go to "Bronze Age Ireland's Taste in Gold."