Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, July 20

Civil War Submarine Update

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Archaeologist Michael Scafuri of The Hunley Project announced that the levers controlling the keel blocks on the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley were still locked in the regular position, according to an Associated Press report. Corrosion, silt, and shells have accumulated on Hunley since it disappeared in Charleston Harbor shortly after its crew of eight placed explosives on the hull of USS Housatonic, a ship in the Union blockading squadron. Scientists have been carefully removing concretions from the inside and outside of the vessel and looking for possible clues as to why it sank. Scafuri explained that releasing the 1,000-pound keel blocks, which helped to keep the hand-cranked vessel upright while underwater, would have helped the Hunley crew to surface quickly in the case of an emergency. “It’s more evidence there wasn’t much of a panic on board,” he added. For more on the submarine, go to “History's Greatest Wrecks: USS Monitor and H.L. Hunley.”

Researchers Return to Wreckage of Swedish Warship Mars

ÖLAND, SWEDEN—Science Nordic reports that a team of underwater archaeologists from Södertörn University, the Västervik Museum, and other organizations recently found human remains, cannons, and a hand grenade while investigating the wreckage of the Swedish warship Mars. Discovered in 2011 off the coast of Öland Island, Mars sank in the deep waters of the Baltic Sea in 1564 after a violent gunpowder explosion while under attack during the Northern Seven Years’ War, fought between Denmark and Sweden from 1563 to 1570. “We can see from the wreckage that it was a very intense and tough battle,” said researcher Rolf Fabricius Warming. The human remains include a femur bearing trauma on the knee end that may have been caused by a sharp-edged weapon. Historical sources indicate Mars had a large anti-boarding net covering its deck, but the net failed to prevent as many as 400 Danish and Lübeckian soldiers from jumping aboard the ship and attacking the crew. Large guns, another recent innovation at the time, had been intended to engage the enemy at long distance, also in an effort to prevent such close-quarter fighting. “Soldiers fought with hand grenades, lances, and spears, which they threw down from the masts,” Warming explained. “The fighting was structured and carefully calculated, but an absolute ruckus.” To read in-depth about a massacre that occurred on Öland Island, go to “Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480.”

Old Kingdom Pottery Workshop Unearthed in Egypt

ASWAN, EGYPT—According to an Associated Press report, a 4,000-year-old pottery workshop has been discovered close to the Nile River in southern Egypt. Mostafa al-Waziri of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said the site, which contains a pottery wheel made of a limestone turntable and a hollow base, will offer information about the development of pottery manufacturing during the Fourth Dynasty, in the middle of the third millenium B.C. To read about another discovery at Aswan, go to “Afterlife on the Nile.”


More Headlines
Thursday, July 19

Iron Age Hair Recovered on Scottish Island

ORKNEY, SCOTLAND—The Scotsman reports that about 20 strands of hair thought to be 2,000 years old have been discovered in a chamber that was located some six feet under a tower now known as The Cairns Broch, on Scotland’s island of South Ronaldsay. A wooden bowl and pegs were found protected by damp silt in the same chamber earlier this month. Martin Carruthers of the University of the Highlands and Islands said the hair looks like human hair, and is still pliable and shiny. Measuring about three inches long, it could potentially record about eight months’ worth of information on the person’s diet and health. “We have recovered some human remains from the site in the past, such as a mandible and the odd tooth, but nothing as exciting as the hair which [has] enormous potential to give us a more vivid picture of the humanity of the broch,” Carruthers said. To read in-depth about excavations on Orkney, go to Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.

Neanderthals May Have Started Their Own Fires

LEIDEN, THE NETHERLANDS—According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Neanderthals may have controlled and produced fire as early as 50,000 years ago. Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University struck a piece of pyrite against a replica biface—a palm-sized multipurpose tool used by Neanderthals—to see if he could start a fire with it. “Some strikes produced only one spark, others produced showers of up to ten sparks or so,” he said. Sorensen then employed a microscope to compare the marks left on the replica biface with those recovered from several Neanderthal sites in France, and found that they were similar. Bifaces are also thought to have been used to butcher and skin animals, grind minerals into powder, and create other tools, so Sorensen used his replica biface in these ways as well in order to determine what sort of marks these actions left on the stone. “The traces made by pyrite were the ‘best fit,’” he said. “But there could be some other mineral material that we just didn’t think of that could create similar traces.” For more on early human use of fire, go to “Evolve and Catch Fire.”

Roman Coins Discovered at Fort Site in Georgia

WARSAW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that bronze and silver Roman coins have been unearthed in Georgia, on what had been the ancient border with the province of Cappadocia, by a team of Georgian and Polish archaeologists. The coins were all minted in Caesarea, which is located about 600 miles away, between the reigns of Hadrian, who ruled in the early second century A.D., and Septimius Severus, who ruled at the beginning of the third century A.D. “All coins were found very close to each other in the Roman fort [of] Apsaros,” said Radosław Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski of the University of Warsaw. He and Shota Mamuladze of Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University think the coins may have been part of a larger treasure possibly hidden by Roman soldiers before their expedition against the Parthians. The treasure may have been scattered by later earthworks and construction at the site of the fort by Byzantine, Ottoman, and Soviet soldiers. To read about one of the largest caches of Roman coins ever to have been found, go to “Seaton Down Hoard.”

Egypt’s Huge Sarcophagus Yields Three Possible Warriors

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the skeletons of three men who appear to have been killed in battle were found inside a large, sealed, black granite sarcophagus discovered in Alexandria earlier this month. Mummy expert Shaaban Abdel-Moneim said one of men appears to have an arrow wound in his skull. Water leaks had delayed the opening of the sarcophagus, according to representatives of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. The remains will be restored and studied. For more on archaeology in Egypt, go to “Honoring Osiris.”

Wednesday, July 18

Corn Fungus May Have Kept Ancestral Puebloans Healthy

HIGHLAND PARK, TEXAS—Cosmos Magazine reports that Jenna Battillo of Southwestern Methodist University says that consuming a fungus that grows on corn allowed the ancestral Puebloans to survive on a corn-based diet beginning around 400 B.C. and lasting for a period of about 800 years. Corn is thought to have comprised about 80 percent of the calories consumed by the people of the Basketmaker II culture, who also ate a small amount of wild plants, and occasionally some wild rabbit, but not enough to make up for the lack of essential nutrients in their staple crop. Yet, analysis of human remains from the period have not detected signs of pellagra, a potentially fatal disease that can be caused by the lack of vitamins and amino acids in a corn-based diet. Now considered a delicacy, corn fungus, or Ustilago maydis, alters the nutritional content of corn, increasing its protein levels and boosting the levels of most of the missing amino acids. Battillo suggests the ancient practice of boiling corn with limestone, and the small amount of food consumed from other sources, may have provided enough of the key missing amino acid to keep the ancestral Puebloans healthy. The levels of corn fungus spores in the human feces found at Turkey Pen Ruin, an ancestral Pueblo site in Utah, suggests the corn fungus may have been eaten intentionally, she added. For more, go to “Mapping Maya Cornfields.”

Remains of Forced Laborers Found in Texas

HOUSTON, TEXAS—According to a report in The New York Times, the remains of some 95 people have been found at a Texas plantation cemetery dating from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. About half of the graves have been exhumed, and more than 20 of the bodies have been analyzed. All but one of them were men who lived to between the ages of about 14 to 70. The bones show evidence of poor childhood health and heavy labor. Some of them may have been former slaves. Ken Brown of the University of Houston thinks the men may have been African-American laborers who worked at the sugar plantation under a convict lease system. In other words, they were prisoners of the state of Texas, often arrested for minor offenses such as loitering, who were forced to live and work on the plantation. Eventually, Texas had state-run prison farms, Brown said. Prisoners helped to build the Texas state capitol building in Austin, as well as part of the Texas State Railroad. For more on archaeology in Texas, go to “Off the Grid: Caddo Mounds State Historic Site.”

Ancient Plaque Hints at British Diets Over Time

YORK, ENGLAND—Scientists led by Camilla Speller of the University of York analyzed proteins in the dental plaque of Britons who lived from the Iron Age to the post-medieval period in order to discover what they ate, according to a BBC News report. They also investigated plaque from the teeth of living Britons, and some who had died recently. Milk products were detected in about one-third of the plaque samples, the oldest of which dated to 6500 B.C., Speller said. Victorian teeth yielded evidence of plant foods such as oats, peas, vegetables in the cabbage family, and dairy products. Modern diets were shown to include potatoes, soy, peanuts, and dairy products. This research could help other scientists determine what food products people ate in the past even though they do not otherwise survive in the archaeological record. To read in-depth about the study of ancient dental plaque, go to “Worlds Within Us.”

1,700-Year-Old Marble Bust Unearthed in Turkey

MERSIN PROVINCE, TURKEY—Hurriyet Daily News reports that a team of archaeologists led by Remzi Yağci of Dokuz Eylül University has unearthed a marble bust depicting a stern-faced bearded man at the site of the ancient city of Soli Pompeiopolis, which is located in southern Turkey. The city, founded in the eighth century B.C., was destroyed in the first century B.C., and was named for Pompey the Great, who rebuilt it. The sculpture is thought to depict a Roman aristocrat or military commander who lived during the end of the second century or beginning of the third century A.D., based upon the style of the carving. The well-preserved city has also yielded statues of gods, a column-lined street, sculpture bases and busts of Roman emperors, a theater, a bath complex, a harbor, and an aqueduct. For more on Roman remains discovered in Turkey, go to “Zeugma After the Flood.”