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Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, May 22

Scientists Attempt to Recover DNA in Turkey’s Neolithic City Site

POZNAŃ, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that an international team of researchers led by Maciej Chyleński of Adam Mickiewicz University attempted to recover and analyze genetic material from the remains of nearly 40 people who had been buried some 8,500 years ago under the floors of four houses in Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement in central Turkey. The analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, suggests that the women buried next to children were not their mothers. “For now, we know that the dead buried under the same house were not related in the maternal line,” Chyleński said. The team members are still attempting to sequence nuclear genomes from the bones, which contain DNA from both parents, in order to look for other kinship relationships among the dead. Chyleński thinks the social structure at Çatalhöyük may have been more complex than previously thought, and more than one family may have lived in each of the site’s mud-brick houses. To read more about DNA research of Neolithic societies, go to "Seeds of Europe's Family Tree." 

17th-Century Fort Uncovered on Scottish Island

STORNOWAY, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that traces of a seventeenth-century fort were unearthed on the island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides during construction work. The stone fort is thought to have been built by the order of Oliver Cromwell, who was named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1653. Archaeologist Mary Peteranna said one section of the surviving wall stands about five feet tall and six feet wide, with a slightly sloped outward face. “The structure was built for a more substantial purpose, and we believe it formed part of the Cromwellian defensive rampart,” she explained. Cromwell died in 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. The exiled king, Charles II, returned to the throne in 1660. To read about the fate of a Scottish army that challenged Cromwell, go to "After the Battle."

Archaeologists Brew Drinks With Revived Ancient Yeast

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—According to an Associated Press report, archaeologists and microbiologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and their colleagues extracted yeast from tiny pores in nearly two dozen ancient pottery fragments recovered from Egyptian, Philistine, and Judean sites in Israel and brewed beer and mead with it. The caramel-colored beer, which incorporated ingredients not available in the ancient Middle East, is said to have had a thick white head and a complex flavor, while the mead was bubbly and dry. Michael Klutstein of Hebrew University said the experiments show that yeast can survive for as many as 5,000 years without food. Genetic analysis of the ancient yeast suggests it was similar to strains still used today to make traditional beer in Zimbabwe and tej, an Ethiopian honey wine. The technique used to extract the microorganisms may help scientists identify foods such as cheese, wine, and pickles in ancient vessels, added Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University. To read about the brewing of Bronze Age ale in Ireland, go to "Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh."  

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Tuesday, May 21

Bones of Possible Medieval Kings and Queens Analyzed

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—The Independent reports that Heidi Dawson-Hobbis and Kate Robson Brown of the University of Bristol and their colleagues analyzed a collection of medieval human remains held in wooden caskets in southern England’s Winchester Cathedral. In the mid-seventeenth century, during the English Civil War, the cathedral was ransacked and the bones were taken from their wooden caskets and scattered by Parliamentarian troops. The jumbled bones were thought to belong to six Anglo-Saxon kings, an Anglo-Saxon queen, an Anglo-Norman king, an Anglo-Danish king, and two Anglo-Saxon bishops. The scientists determined, however, that the bones include the remains of at least 23 people. To date, the skeletons of 10 of the individuals have been reassembled, some of the bones have been dated, and the sex and age at death of some of the individuals have been determined. DNA testing could reveal specific family relationships among them. Isotope analysis of the bones could help the researchers ascertain where each person grew up and what he or she ate. Further research may reveal what sort of activities the people took part in, such as archery or horseback riding. In addition, damage to the bones indicates that accounts of Parliamentarian troops using the royal bones as missiles to break the cathedral’s stained glass windows may be accurate. To read about archaeological investigation into the landscape of an earlier English civil war, go to “Letter from England: Inside the Anarchy.”

More Megalithic Jars Mapped in Laos

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that a new survey conducted in central Laos by a team of archaeologists from Laos and Australia revealed an additional 137 stone jars at 15 new sites in the rugged terrain surrounding the Plain of Jars. The giant, carved stone jars are thought to have been used in burial rituals some 2,500 years ago. Researchers have suggested that bodies may have been stored in the jars until the bones could be cleaned and buried. Archaeologist Louise Shewan of Monash University said the newly mapped jars indicate that such burial practices may have been more widespread than previously thought. The jars were probably carved in quarries and transported to the forested mountain sites, said Shewan's codirector on the project, Dougald O’Reilly of Australian National University. Near the jars, the researchers uncovered stone disks carved with images of animals and geometric designs buried with the carved side face down. Decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, decorative disks worn in the ears, spindle whorls, and miniature clay jars were also uncovered. To read in-depth about the Plain of Jars, go to “Letter from Laos: A Singular Landscape.”

Ancient Egyptians Enjoyed Sweet Watermelons

MUNICH, GERMANY—New Scientist reports that Egyptians living some 3,500 years ago may have eaten watermelons similar to those we enjoy today. Botanists Susanne Renner of the University of Munich and Guillaume Chomicki of the University of Oxford analyzed a tiny piece of one of the ancient watermelon leaves that were discovered in an Egyptian tomb and sent to botanist Joseph Hooker in London in the late nineteenth century. Fortunately, the partial genome sequence the researchers obtained from the artifact contained genes related to color and taste. This melon plant did not produce the bitter cucurbitacins found in Africa’s wild, round watermelons. It also lacked a functioning gene for transforming the red pigment lycopene into another substance, which means the plant produced fruit with red flesh. Ancient Egyptian images of watermelons depict them with an elongated shape, but the partial gene sequence did not reveal the contours of this particular plant's fruit. Renner said the analysis also suggests the plant was related to sweet watermelons with white flesh that are grown to this day in Sudan. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, go to “Family Secrets.”

Monday, May 20

New Thoughts on the Origins of King Tut’s Yellow Scarab

BENTLEY, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that a carved piece of canary-yellow glass worn as pectoral ornament by Egypt’s King Tutankhamun was likely formed by ground-based shock waves initiated by a meteorite impact some 29 million years ago. Aaron Cavosie of Curtin University led a team of researchers who analyzed grains of the mineral zircon found in similar pieces of glass recovered in the Libyan desert. It had been previously suggested that such yellow glass could have been formed by the heat and pressure created by an asteroid that exploded near the Earth, in an event known as an airburst. But Cavosie and his colleagues detected evidence that the zircon in the glass samples had transformed from reidite, a mineral only formed under pressure so intense it must have been triggered by an actual meteor impact. Cavosie explained that although airbursts happen more frequently than meteor impacts, they do not cause as much damage. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, go to “Family Secrets.”

19th-Century Military Complex Unearthed in Canada

OTTAWA, CANADA—According to a CBC News report, archaeologists are excavating a nineteenth-century military complex on Parliament Hill, which is now home to the Parliament of Canada. Archaeologist Stephen Jarrett said soldiers in the Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment who lived at the site worked to build the Rideau Canal, which connects the capital city to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River. So far, his team has uncovered a guardhouse, a jail, and at least one of three barracks used to house soldiers and their wives from 1826 to the late 1850s. Artifacts recovered from the site include chin straps, tags, coins, and gorgets, which officers wore to hold their neckties in place. After Ottawa was named the capital of the United Province of Canada by Queen Victoria in the late 1850s, the military complex was torn down and construction of the first parliament buildings began. For more on the history of Canada, go to “Off the Grid: Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal.”

Rare Roman Coin Uncovered in England

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—The Hunts Post reports that archaeologists working ahead of road construction in eastern England uncovered a coin at a Roman farmstead site depicting Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus wearing a radiate crown. The coin is only the second one to have been found in England that bears an image of Laelianus, who ruled a breakaway empire located in what is now Germany and France for two months in A.D. 269. Laelianus was killed in Germania, perhaps by his own soldiers, during the siege of Mainz, where the coin was minted. Archaeologists believe the coin probably arrived in Britain after the emperor’s death. For more on Roman England, go to “Foreign Funeral Rites.”

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