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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, May 18

Herod the Great’s Bathtubs Were Locally Sourced

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL—According to a statement released by Bar-Ilan University, a new study conducted by Ayala Amir, Boaz Zissu, and Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University and Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and their colleagues suggests that high-quality calcite-alabaster vessels were produced in the Levant. It had been previously thought that all ancient calcite-alabaster vessels discovered in the region were made of stone imported from Egypt. The scientists analyzed the chemical composition and crystalline structure of modern and ancient samples of calcite-alabaster from Egypt, calcite-alabaster chips from a recently discovered quarry in Te'omim cave in the Jerusalem hills, and a block of calcite-alabaster from Umm el-‘Umdan, an archaeological site situated near the cave. They then compared the results of the tests with the composition of two high-quality bathtubs found in the Kypros fortress and the palace of Herod the Great. The study indicates that the bathtubs were made from local calcite-alabaster, and suggests that the calcite-alabaster industry in Judea was developed enough in the second half of the first century B.C. to meet Herod’s exacting standards, Maeir explained. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Scientific Reports. To read about a Roman basilica complex unearthed in Ashkelon that was built during Herod's reign, go to "Herodian Hangout."

Genomes of Ancient Uruguayans Mapped

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—According to a statement released by Emory University, John Lindo of Emory University and Gonzalo Figueiro of The University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, sequenced the genomes of two people who lived in what is now eastern Uruguay before the Indigenous people of the region came contact with Europeans in the early sixteenth century. The first sample came from a man who lived about 800 years ago, and the second from a woman who lived about 1,500 years ago. Lindo explained that the study revealed a connection between the ancient Uruguayans and individuals who lived in Panama, the land bridge connecting North and South America, and to people in eastern Brazil, but not to modern Amazonians. Separate migrations to South America could account for these differences, Lindo explained. For more on migrations to the Americas, go to "America, in the Beginning."

Possible Denisovan Tooth Discovered in Laos

CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, ILLINOIS—A molar thought to have belonged to a Denisovan girl between the ages of four and eight at the time of her death has been discovered by an international team of researchers in a cave in the Annamite Mountains in Laos, according to a Gizmodo report. The cave is only the third location where Denisovan remains have been found, and the first in southeast Asia. Traces of Denisovan DNA have been found in living populations in southeast Asia, however. Sediments around the tooth have been dated to between 164,000 and 131,000 years ago. Team member Clément Zanolli of the University of Bordeaux explained that the child’s molar resembles the teeth in a partial Denisovan mandible discovered in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, and has features that distinguish it from other Homo species that lived in southeast Asia at the time. If the tooth belonged to a Neanderthal, the researchers added, it would be the “southeastern-most” Neanderthal fossil ever found. The discovery shows that Denisovans were widespread and able to adapt to a wide range of environments, commented team leader Laura Shackelford of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature Communications. For more on the Denisovan mandible uncovered on the Tibetan Plateau, go to "Denisovans at Altitude," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2019.


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Tuesday, May 17

Cattle May Have Been Domesticated in the Central Nile Valley

WROCŁAW, POLAND—Cattle may have been domesticated in the Letti Basin of what is now Sudan some 10,000 years ago, according to a Science in Poland report. It had been previously thought that cattle were first domesticated from the wild aurochs in Turkey and Iraq, and then arrived in East Africa in the fifth millennium B.C. But Piotr Osypiński of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Marta Osypiński of the University of Wrocław said that they have found the remains of domesticated cattle with “aurochs-like” features in the Letti Basin, along with the bones of other wild species. The researchers are waiting for precise dating results of samples to confirm the age of the bones. “That group of people already knew ceramic vessels, used quern-stones to grind cereal grains (wild varieties of millet), so they can be called early-Neolithic communities,” Marta Osypiński said. “They still hunted wild savannah animals, with one only exception—cattle at an early stage of domestication.” To read about efforts to recover the aurochs genome, go to "Raise a Toast to the Aurochs."

Sixth Dynasty Official’s Tomb Discovered in Saqqara

WARSAW, POLAND—Live Science reports that a 4,300-year-old tomb has been found in the Saqqara necropolis next to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt’s first pyramid, which had been built about 400 years earlier. Hieroglyphs on the tomb indicate that Mehtjetju, the high-status official buried there, served as inspector of the royal estate, a priest of the mortuary cult of the pharaoh Teti (r. 2323–2291 B.C.), and had access to sealed royal documents, explained Kamil Kuraszkiewicz of the University of Warsaw. Mehtjetju may have also served the pharaohs Userkare (r. 2291–2289 B.C.) and Pepi I (r. 2289–2255 B.C.). The tomb of Mehtjetju may be part of a larger complex of tombs holding the remains of his family, Kuraszkiewicz added. The researchers plan to return to the site in the fall. To read about monuments built by pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty at nearby Abusir, go to "In the Reign of the Sun Kings."

Ancient Underground City Excavated in Turkey

MARDIN PROVINCE, TURKEY—The Anadolu Agency reports that a small section of an underground city complete with dwelling areas, grain storage silos, wells, tunnels, and a possible Christian church and a possible Jewish synagogue has been unearthed in southeastern Turkey. An entrance to the underground city was discovered two years ago in a cave at the open-air museum of the ancient settlement of Midyat. Gani Tarkan of the Mardin Museum said that the 49 underground rooms explored so far are thought to represent only about three percent of the city, which may have sheltered as many as 70,000 people. Some of the rooms may have been used by Christians who were hiding from the Roman authorities in the second and third centuries, he added. To read about rare theater masks discovered under a Roman fortress in Mardin, go to "Masked Men."

Monday, May 16

Restoration Reveals Engravings in Egypt’s Temple of Esna

CAIRO, EGYPT—According to an Ahram Online report, Egyptian and German archaeologists have cleaned the walls and ceilings of Luxor’s Temple of Esna from dust, salts, and bird droppings, revealing images of 46 birds arranged in two rows. Mostafa Waziri of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said that it is the first time that the artworks have been seen in 2,000 years. Some of the birds have the head of the Upper Egypt goddess Nekhbet, and others have the head of the Lower Egypt goddess Wadjet. The conservators also found a Roman engraving on the western side of the temple. The construction of the building, which is dedicated to the Egyptian god Khnum and his consorts, is thought to have been started during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, from A.D. 41 to 54, and completed by the emperor Domitian during his rule from A.D. 81 to 96. Decoration of the temple continued into the reign of the emperor Decius, from A.D. 249 to 251. To read about a New Kingdom settlement recently discovered at Luxor, go to "Golden City," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2021.

Possible Traces of Calming Drug Found in Sacrificed Inca Children

WARSAW, POLAND—Science News reports that bioarchaeologist Dagmara Socha of the University of Warsaw and her colleagues have detected traces of harmine and harmaline in the hair and fingernails of two Inca children who were sacrificed some 500 years ago and buried on Peru’s Ampato Mountain. The presence of these chemicals in the children’s remains suggest that they may have ingested the vine Banisteriopsis caapi in the days or weeks before their deaths, Socha explained. Tests of the effects of harmine in rodents suggest that it may work like an antidepressant, so a drink made with Banisteriopsis caapi may have been given to the children in order to calm their nerves as they traveled from their homes to the capital city of Cuzco for official ceremonies and then on to Ampato Mountain, Socha said. To read about an Inca ritual box found in Lake Titicaca, go to "Artifact."

California Museum Repatriates Remains and Artifacts

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—The Santa Barbara Independent reports that the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum has handed over a collection of human remains and artifacts to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The bones included the partial remains of more than 1,000 Chumash and pre-Chumash people, along with some 4,000 funerary objects. The oldest remains in the collection have been dated to 13,000 years ago. These three femurs were discovered on Santa Rosa Island and support the idea that humans traveled by sea, following the coastline of northeastern Asia and Beringia into North America and on to South America. To read about shell beads that the Chumash may have used as currency, go to "Around the World: California."