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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 24

Cow Offal Was Likely Source of Parasites at Stonehenge Feasts

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Cambridge, a team of researchers led by archaeologist Piers Mitchell analyzed fossilized human and dog feces discovered in a refuse heap at Durrington Walls, the site of a Neolithic village thought to have been inhabited on a seasonal basis some 4,500 years ago by the people who built Stonehenge. Five of the samples, one human and four dog, were infested with capillariid worms. When this type of parasite infects humans or ruminants, it lodges in the liver and is not excreted through the digestive system. The presence of the microscopic eggs in the human feces indicates that the person and the dogs had consumed raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an infected animal. Cow bones in the refuse pile suggest that cows may have been the ruminant source of the parasite eggs, Mitchell explained. A previous isotopic analysis of the chemical composition of cow teeth from the site suggests that some cattle at Durrington Walls originated in Devon or Wales, and may have been imported for large-scale winter feasting. One of the dogs was also infected with a fish parasite, which was probably consumed at another location, since no fish bones have been recovered from Durrington Walls. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Parasitology. For more on feasting at Durrington Walls, go to "Neolithic Henge Feasts," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2019.

Skeleton Unearthed in China May Have Lost Foot to Amputation

BEIJING, CHINA—According to a Live Science report, archaeologist Li Nan of Peking University and her colleagues examined a 3,000-year-old skeleton missing its right foot that was unearthed at the Zhouyuan site in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province in 1999. The skeleton was found in a burial with a few shells and was likely buried by family members. Careful examination of the ends of the bones revealed rough edges, unlike those usually found in surgical removals, and no signs of disease. Signs of growth on the bones indicate that the foot was removed, Li said, about five years before the woman died sometime between the ages of 30 and 35. The researchers think the foot may have been removed as a punishment for slaves known as yue, rather than in an accident or war injury. Historical records show that the yue was inflicted as punishment for some 500 different offenses, including rebelling, cheating, stealing, and climbing over certain gates, until it was abolished in the second century B.C., Li added. “We have no clue what kind of crime she committed,” she concluded. To read about 2,000-year-old bronze mirrors unearthed in a cemetery outside Xi'an, go to "Mirror, Mirror." 


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Monday, May 23

Ancient Ochre Mine Uncovered in Wyoming

LARAMIE, WYOMING—According to a statement released by the University of Wyoming, excavations led by Wyoming's state archaeologist and researchers from the University of Wyoming have uncovered evidence of an ancient mine dated to around 13,000 years ago, where Paleoindians extracted hematite, an iron oxide from which they produced red ochre. The team uncovered thousands of artifacts associated with the mine and possible settlements nearby, including shell beads, quarrying tools made from antlers, and Clovis points, or stone projectile tips thought to have been made by some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. Researchers believe the mine is possibly the oldest of any kind yet uncovered in the Western Hemisphere. Red ochre is thought to have been used in a number of ways in Paleoindian, Archaic-period, and Woodland-period Native American societies, serving as pigment for body paint during rituals and for decorating burials. The Wyoming mine, known as the Powars II site, is the only red ochre quarry so far documented in the North American archaeological record north of southern Mexico, and only one of five quarries to have been identified in all of the Americas. To read more about how Paleoindians mined the earth for precious resources, go to "Off the Grid: Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Texas."

Maya Tooth Treatments May Have Prevented Infection

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—According to a Science Magazine report, sealants used by the ancient Maya to affix gemstones to their teeth may have had infection-fighting properties. During the Classic period (A.D. 200–900), many lowland Maya people in present-day Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico attached stones such as jade, turquoise, and pyrite to their teeth, typically as part of rites of passage. Dentists would drill holes into people’s teeth, then attach the stones using a sealant. As part of a new analysis of the chemical contents of the sealants, a team led by Gloria Hernández Bolio, a biochemist at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico, studied eight teeth found across the Maya empire. They determined that the sealants’ contents varied based on location, suggesting that local practitioners had their own recipes, but that most of the samples include ingredients from pine trees, which have been shown to fight bacteria that cause tooth decay. In addition, two teeth appear to contain sclareolide, a compound found in Salvia plants that has antibacterial and antifungal properties. And samples from the Copán region, near the border of Honduras and Guatemala, include essential oils from mint plants whose components may have anti-inflammatory effects. Hernández Bolio notes that the most important factor in creating the sealants was their binding properties, but that today’s Maya use the plants for medicinal purposes, so ancient people may have been aware of their salutary effects. To read more about Maya clothing, jewelry, and body modification, go to “From Head to Toe in the Ancient Maya World.”

Ancient Incense from Chinese Temple Analyzed

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—The South China Morning Post reports that researchers identified rare remnants of incense in three containers dating to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) that were recovered from the underground palace of the Famen Royal Temple in northwestern China. The temple was known for housing an important sarira, or relic––the finger bone of Sakyamuni Buddha, which historical documents record was worshipped by Tang emperors. Incense was a common element of Buddhist rituals and would have been used during royal ceremonies venerating the sarira. Using chemical analysis, the researchers determined that one of the vessels contained fragrant agarwood and another elemi resin. A third, begonia-shaped silver container held a mixture of agarwood and frankincense. "The incense samples were mainly from abroad and transported to China through the land or maritime Silk Road," said Yimin Yang of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. "[The findings] reflect the incense trade and its function in Buddhist activities during the Tang dynasty." To read about Tang murals recently uncovered in a tomb in Shaanxi Province, go to "Beast Masters."

Neolithic Stone Circle Discovered in Cornwall

BODMIN, ENGLAND—The Cornish Times reports that archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown stone circle within the banks of Castilly Henge, a late Neolithic (ca. 3000–2500 B.C.) earthen enclosure where rituals are believed to have been carried out. Measuring 225 feet long by 205 feet wide and surrounded by a six-foot ditch, the henge was heavily overgrown until teams led by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit cleared the site over the winter. This allowed researchers from Historic England to survey the henge using remote sensing techniques such as ground penetrating radar, which identified seven buried stones composing a circle. This is only the second henge in Cornwall known to have a stone circle within its enclosure. To read about another recent Neolithic discovery in Cornwall, go to “By the Light of the Moon.”

Friday, May 20

Did Dog Jaws Adapt to a Domesticated Diet?

PERTH, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by Murdoch University, the muscle action required to consume a carnivorous or omnivorous diet may have influenced the shape of the lower jaw of domesticated dogs over time. Colline Brassard of Murdoch University and her colleagues examined the lower jaws of more than 500 European dogs who lived between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, and compared their structure with the jaws of modern dogs, wolves, and Australian dingoes. The shapes of the ancient European dogs’ jaws indicate that they ate tougher, harder foods than most modern dogs, Brassard said. Their greater biting force would have been useful for defense and hunting, she explained. She thinks the shape of domesticated dogs’ jaws likely shifted as they began to eat plant foods provided by humans. Modern dogs have also developed multiple copies of a gene that increases their ability to digest starches. Team member Trish Fleming of Murdoch University added that the shape of the lower jaws of dingoes falls between that of wolves and modern dogs. Dingoes arrived in Australia between 5,000 and 3,600 years ago, and they still consume a diet mainly made up of kangaroos and wallabies. Additionally, dingoes have just a single copy of the gene for digesting starches, which suggests they separated from the modern dog lineage before domesticated dogs adapted to an omnivorous diet, Fleming concluded. To read about specialized dog breeds that the Inuit introduced to North America 2,000 years ago, go to "Around the World: Arctic."  

Artifacts Hint at Chinese American Life in Early 20th-Century Oregon

EUGENE, OREGON—According to a statement released by the University of Oregon, an archaeological investigation conducted by archaeologists Chris Ruiz, Marlene Jampolsky, and Jon Krier ahead of a construction project in downtown Eugene identified pieces of a Chinese stoneware bowl, a porcelain teacup, three Chinese brown stoneware liquor bottles, and a Japanese porcelain vessel. A 1912 fire insurance map indicates that a Chinese restaurant and a gift shop stood in the area where the artifacts were found. The restaurant, the Smeede Hotel Grill, served Chinese food and was owned by Wing Kee, who was born in Oregon to Chinese parents in 1875. Kee’s father applied for U.S. citizenship in 1886, but was denied under the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1914, Wing Kee and his wife, Marie Westfall, opened the Hung Wo Chang & Co gift shop, which sold Chinese products to non-Chinese consumers. Historical documents also show that Wing Kee volunteered as a member of the United States food administration during World War I, while Marie Westfall worked as a Red Cross volunteer. The couple’s move out of the area in the 1920s was also recorded in local newspapers. For more on the first Chinese Americans, go to "America's Chinatowns."