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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, November 20

New Technique Could Help Identify Modern Human Ancestors

DENTON, TEXAS—The University of North Texas announced that an international team of scientists including archaeologist and geologist Reid Ferring developed a way to identify a species of creatures that lived more than one million years ago by analyzing proteins extracted from fossils. Ferring explained that proteins can survive in fossilized collagen from tendons, ligaments, skin, bone, and teeth for a longer period of time than DNA, which is limited to about 200,000 years. To test the process, scientists extracted protein from a 1.7-million-year-old rhinoceros tooth found under a 20-foot layer of volcanic ash at the Dmanisi site in the country of Georgia, and determined it belonged to a Stephanorhinus, an extinct type of rhino. The team members were also able to fit this individual into the modern rhino’s evolutionary line. Such information could help scientists identify evolutionary links between early hominins and modern humans, Ferring explained. For more on protein analysis, go to "Proteins Solve a Hominin Puzzle."

Farmer’s Field in Poland Contains 2,000-Year-Old Cemetery

KRAKÓW, POLAND—According to a Science in Poland report, heavily damaged artifacts dating back some 2,000 years have been discovered in a farmer’s field in south-central Poland by a team of researchers led by Jan Bulas of Jagiellonian University. The artifacts include fragments of urns, cremated remains, and 200 pieces of corroded iron making up four swords, nine spears or javelins, and brooches known as fibulae. Bits of bone, stone, and pottery items were also recovered. “We do not know exactly how many graves were in the cemetery, because our research is still in an initial stage,” Bulas said. “The graves are destroyed and often spread over a large area of the field.” However, Bulas and his team estimate that there were at least 20 burials in an area measuring about 2,100 square feet. The cemetery also featured squares carved into the soil and oriented by the cardinal directions. Fragments of pottery and metal objects had been placed in the squares, Bulas explained. He thinks the squares may have been used to designate family space within the cemetery. Further research could help identify the cultural identity of the people who were buried there, he added. To read about a Neolithic mass grave in Poland containing 15 relatives, go to "We Are Family."

Roman-Era Bath Identified in Bulgaria

VARNA, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that a public bath complex dating to the fifth century A.D. has been uncovered in the ancient city of Odessos, which is located on the Black Sea coast. At first, archaeologists led by Elina Mircheva of the Varna Museum of Archaeology thought the well-decorated structure, which featured a water-storage facility and a fountain, might have been part of a nymphaeum, or shrine dedicated to divine spirits often depicted as beautiful young women. Recent excavations, however, revealed an underfloor heating system typical of Roman public baths, and more than 200 coins thought to have been lost by bathers. Mircheva suggested that the building may have been modified during the medieval period for water storage. To read about Pompeii's public Stabian Baths, go to "Digging Deeper into Pompeii's Past: Water and Bathing."

New Nazca Lines Spotted in Peru

YAMAGATA, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that researchers led by Masato Sakai of Yamagata University have discovered 143 new geoglyphs in the southern Peruvian desert—home to a group of previously identified geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines—through a combination of fieldwork and analysis of high-resolution 3-D data. Sakai said the newly-discovered geoglyphs date to between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300, and are spread over a six-mile area on the west side of the Nazca plateau. One of the glyphs, which measures about 16 feet long and is thought to represent a human form, was identified using new artificial intelligence technology developed by IBM Japan that can rapidly process aerial photographs. Others depict animals such as birds and camels. The researchers plan to investigate another 500 possible geoglyph sites spotted by artificial intelligence technology. To read more about the Nazca Lines, go to "Partially Identified Flying Objects."


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Tuesday, November 19

Rescue Excavation in Wales Recovers Skeletal Remains

GLAMORGAN, WALES—BBC News reports that the bones of at least six people were recovered at the edge of an eroded cliff at Nash Point, a beach on the coast of South Wales, by a team of archaeologists from Cardiff University and Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, climbing experts, geologists, and ecologists. Previous rescue missions at the cemetery site have retrieved bones radiocarbon dated to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. Bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville of Cardiff University said the newly discovered bones may have belonged to Tudor or Stuart-era men killed in a shipwreck. The remains of one younger person were found buried away from the others, who had been placed in graves dug side-by-side, and multiple men had been placed in a single grave. Analysis of the bones could help pinpoint when the men lived and who they were, Mulville added. Additional graves at the site were found empty because the bones had already washed out to sea. To read about a medieval castle in Wales whose footprint was exposed by a summer drought, go to "The Marks of Time."

Ancient Remains of Infants Wearing “Helmets” Found in Ecuador

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Sara Juengst of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and her colleagues discovered the remains of two infants who had been buried some 2,100 years ago wearing “helmets” crafted from the crania of other children, according to a Live Science report. The infants’ remains, discovered with nine other burials in central Ecuador, were interred not long after a volcanic eruption had covered the region in ash. Lesions on the bones indicate the infants and children had all suffered from stress, perhaps brought on by malnutrition. A human hand bone was found between the head of one of the infants and its “helmet.” The researchers plan to extract and analyze DNA and strontium isotopes from the bones to try to determine if the hand bone belonged to any of the infants or children. Stone figurines thought to depict ancestors were also found in the burials, leading the researchers to speculate that the “helmets” may have been intended to offer the infants protection and empowerment. More study is necessary to determine if the burials were part of a ritual response to the environmental impact of the eruption, the researchers explained. To read about the use of cacao seeds more than 5,000 years ago in southeastern Ecuador, go to "Ancient Amazonian Chocolatiers." 

Monday, November 18

Gravestone Fragments Will Be Returned to Prague Jewish Cemetery

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC—BBC News reports that surviving members of Prague’s Jewish community and the city’s government have agreed that fragments of Jewish gravestones uncovered during future excavation work will be turned over to the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery. The stones were removed from the cemetery in 1987, when the country’s Jewish population had dropped to just 8,000 people, and cut into cobbles for the construction of pedestrian walkways in areas including Wenceslas Square and the popular shopping district on Na Prikope. An estimated 350,000 Jews lived in the region before World War II and the onset of the Communist era. To read more about historic Prague, go to "Off the Grid."

France Repatriates 18th-Century Sword to Senegal

DAKAR, SENEGAL—According to an Artnet News report, French prime minister Edouard Philippe handed over an eighteenth-century saber and its scabbard to Senegal president Macky Sall in a ceremony at the Palace of the Republic in Dakar. The weapon belonged to Omar Saïdou Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, and was seized in 1893 by the French, who defeated his son Ahmadou in battle in Mali. At its height, the Toucouleur Empire encompassed parts of what are now Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. “Its home is indeed here, in the heart of the former Toucouleur Empire,” Philippe said. Last year, French president Emmanuel Macron said that France will amend its laws to allow the repatriation of an estimated 90,000 objects removed from sub-Saharan Africa by the French during the colonial era. “We are ready to take it all,” said Hamady Bocoum, director of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. To read about the possible discovery of the last slave ship to depart West Africa, go to "The Case for Clotilda."