Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, December 10

4,000-Year-Old Game Board Identified in Azerbaijan

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—According to a Live Science report, Walter Crist of the American Museum of Natural History has identified a collection of pits carved into a rock shelter in Azerbaijan as a 4,000-year-old game board. Known as “58 Holes,” or “Hounds and Jackals,” copies of the game have also been found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat IV, and at other sites dating to around the second millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia and Anatolia. This set of pits is located in Gobustan National Park, which is known for its ancient rock art. Scholars think the game was played in a manner similar to backgammon, with counters moved around the board. “It is two rows in the middle and holes that arch around outside,” Crist said of its layout, “and it’s always the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth holes that are marked in some way.” A larger hole at the top is thought to be the goal, or endpoint, of the game. To read about an excavation of far more modern games, go to “The Video Game Graveyard.”

Mosaic Fragment Returned to Turkey

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY—BBC News reports that Bowling Green State University has handed over pieces of the “Gypsy Girl” mosaic to Turkey, where they have been put on display in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum with other fragments from a larger artwork. The 2,000-year-old image fragments, which depict a girl’s eyes, nose, hair, and hat, are thought to have been looted from the ancient city of Zeugma and smuggled out of Turkey in the early 1960s. The university purchased the mosaic fragment from an art dealer in 1965. To read in-depth about excavations at Zeugma and the mosaics found there, go to “Zeugma After the Flood.”

Hunter-Gatherer DNA Recovered From Chewed Pitch

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Science Magazine reports that human genetic material has been recovered from 8,000-year-old pieces of birch bark pitch that were unearthed in western Sweden in the 1980s. Birch bark pitch, derived from resin, was heated and chewed to make it pliable, and used as a fastener by hunter-gatherer toolmakers. It also may have just been chewed, like gum. A team led by Natalija Kashuba, who was then a student at the University of Oslo, ground samples from three wads of the hardened resin into powder. They then detected human DNA in all three samples, from three different individuals—two female and one male. Based on the size of the tooth marks and signs of tooth wear evident in the resin, the chewers are all thought to have been between five and 18 years old. The DNA analysis also suggests the chewers were from a group known as Scandinavian hunter-gatherers, who lived in Sweden and Norway. For more on archaeology in Sweden, go to “Hoards of the Vikings.”


More Headlines
Friday, December 7

Foundations of Medieval Friary Found

KINGUSSIE, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that human bones dating to the Middle Ages have been found in the Scottish Highlands, near the foundations of what may have been a Christian chapel built by Carmelite friars, who arrived in Britain in the thirteenth century. Archaeologist Steven Birch of West Coast Archaeology Services said the bones, which are jumbled together, may have been exhumed when a chapel was built for a Carmelite friary at the site sometime before the beginning of the sixteenth century, and then reinterred within structure. After they have been examined, the bones will be reburied in a nearby historic cemetery. To read about the remains of Scottish soldiers who died after the 1650 Battle of Dunbar, go to “After the Battle.”

Excavation of Scotland’s Mote of Urr Revisited

DALBEATTIE, SCOTLAND—The Scotsman reports that the 1950s excavation of the Mote of Urr, a motte-and-bailey castle in Scotland’s Southern Uplands, has been published by a team of researchers from Guard Archaeology. The structure was first built in the late twelfth century and is thought to have been destroyed by fire. When it was rebuilt, a large, central stone-lined pit was dug for use as an oven, furnace, or kiln, and the hill, or motte, on which the structure stood was made taller and a double palisade was built to enclose its summit. The excavation team, led by artist and archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor, also found traces of a trench and a timber bridge across the moat that surrounded the motte. In all, the castle was occupied for more than 200 years. “Urr was probably partly destroyed during the Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century,” said Richard Oram of Stirling University, who researched the history of the site. “There is a large gap in the documentary record for the latter part of the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth centuries, by which time the estate was being rented out to tenant farmers,” he said. To read in-depth about medieval British fortifications, go to “Inside the Anarchy.”

Looted Middle Kingdom Burials Unearthed in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—According to an Egypt Today report, a team of researchers has investigated three burial chambers in a tomb in a Middle Kingdom (1842-1799 B.C.) cemetery in the southern Fayoum. Ayman Ashmawy, head of the archaeological mission, said the chambers were probably looted in antiquity and later reused. The site is then thought to have been damaged by an earthquake. The upper part of a sandstone statue of a human figure holding his hand on his chest was found in one of the chambers. The middle part of a basalt statue measuring about 12 inches tall, pottery, and the tops of three canopic jars were also recovered from the chambers. To read in-depth about a decorated Middle Kingdom burial chamber, go to “Emblems for the Afterlife.”

Thursday, December 6

New Strain of Plague Found in Neolithic Remains in Sweden

MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Live Science reports that a new strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, has been identified in human remains from a Neolithic tomb in Sweden by a team of researchers led by biologist Nicolás Rascovan of Aix-Marseille University. The bacterial DNA came from the dental pulp of a 20-year-old woman who is thought to have died about 4,900 years ago from the deadly pneumonic form of the disease. Based upon comparisons with other strains of Yersinia pestis, Rascovan and his colleagues suggest this one diverged about 5,700 years ago, making it the oldest known strain of plague. It had been previously thought that plague first traveled to Europe from the Eurasian steppe as people migrated west and replaced European farmers, but the age of the plague strain found in Sweden suggests that European farmers may have already suffered from the infection and been in decline when the Eurasians arrived. Karl-Göran Sjögren of the University of Gothenburg said the presence of the plague in Sweden could reflect the growth of bigger settlements and poor sanitary conditions, use of wheeled transport, and increased contact among groups of people through trading networks in the Neolithic world, all of which may have helped spread the pathogens. The scientists have not yet found direct evidence of plague in any of these large Neolithic settlements, however. For more, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Mammoth Tusk “Tiara” Discovered in Denisova Cave

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—According to a report in The Siberian Times, archaeologists have found a 50,000-year-old piece of worked woolly mammoth tusk in the southern gallery of Denisova Cave. Alexander Fedorchenko of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography suggests the curved ivory object is a fragment of an ornament whose large size indicates it was worn by a Denisovan man. A cord would have been threaded through holes in either end of the piece and then tied around the wearer's head in order to keep his hair out of his eyes. There is evident wear and tear on the artifact, which was eventually discarded. Such ivory “tiaras,” as they are called, have been found in other parts of Siberia, but those decorated items were created between 20,000 and 28,000 years ago by modern humans. The Densiovan tiara suggests the tradition could be older than previously thought. For more, go to “Denisovan DNA.”

Gold Coin Discovered in Slovenia

ČRNOMELJ, SLOVENIA—STA reports that archaeologists excavating one of 15 Celtic burials at the Pezdirčeva Njiva site, which is located in southeastern Slovenia, discovered a bronze belt adorned with a gold coin dating to the third century B.C. The coin bears images of the goddesses Nike and Athena and is thought to be a copy of a Greek coin known as an Alexander the Great stater. “A golden coin as such is a rare find in Slovenia,” said Lucija Grahek of the Academy of Sciences and Arts. “As far as I know, this is the third golden coin found at Slovenian sites, and as it seems, the oldest.” Some organic material making up the belt was also preserved. To read about another discovery in Slovenia, go to “Fixing Ancient Toothaches.”