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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, February 23

Bronze Age Settlement Found in Switzerland

HEIMBERG, SWITZERLANDD—A Bronze Age settlement thought to have been inhabited between 3,200 and 3,500 years ago has been found in the Swiss Plateau, beside the Aare River, according to a Newsweek report. The ancient village likely sat along a route between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps. Researchers from the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern (ASCB) discovered the settlement during an excavation conducted ahead of a construction project. “What is exciting about the Heimberg site is that no settlement from the Middle Bronze Age was previously known at this location,” said ASCB archaeologist Regine Stapfer. Pits filled with stones were among the structures uncovered by the project. The stones, Stapfer explained, appear to have been shattered by heat. “It is not clear what these pits with the fragmented stones were used for,” she said. Similar pits have been unearthed at other Middle Bronze Age sites, however. Researchers think they may have been used to provide warmth or to cook food. Clay may have been extracted from other pits at Heimberg, Stapfer added. The clay would have been used to plaster the wicker walls of houses or to produce the abundant ceramics found at the site. “We know of no burial ground for the settlement and therefore have no evidence of the people who inhabited the settlement,” Stapfer concluded. To read about a unique second-millennium B.C. bronze hand unearthed in Switzerland, go to "An Eccentric Artifact," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2018.

Tool Analysis Suggests Neanderthals Mixed Compound Adhesives

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—According to a statement released by New York University, stone tools recovered in France from the Neanderthal site of Le Moustier in the 1960s have been reexamined by an international team of researchers. The team, led by Patrick Schmidt of the University of Tübingen, detected traces of ocher and bitumen on several of the scrapers, flakes, and blades. “We were surprised that the ochre content was more than 50 percent,” Schmidt said. “This is because air-dried bitumen can be used unaltered as an adhesive, but loses its adhesive properties when such large proportions of ochre are added,” he explained. The researchers then tested liquid bitumen and bitumen mixed with various levels of ocher. They found that a mix made up of 55 percent ocher and 45 percent bitumen was just sticky enough to hold a stone tool and yet not stick to the hands, making it a suitable handle. Team member Radu Iovita of New York University said that microscopic examination of the ancient tools revealed wear on the sharp edges from use on other materials, and bright polish on other areas of the tools, where they may have been abraded by the movement of the tool within a grip made of ocher and bitumen. “Compound adhesives are considered to be among the first expressions of the modern cognitive processes that are still active today,” Schmidt concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Science Advances. To read about the earliest known piece of cord, go to "Twisted Neanderthal Tech."

Possible Royal Ring Discovered in Denmark

EMMERLEV, DENMARK—Live Science reports that a metal detectorist discovered a gold ring set with a semiprecious red stone in the hamlet of Emmerlev, which is located in the Southern Jutland region of Denmark. Archaeologist Kirstine Pommergaard of the National Museum of Denmark said that the ring has been dated to the fifth or sixth century A.D., and may have belonged to a local royal family connected to the Frankish kings known as the Merovingians, based upon its spirals and trefoil knobs usually associated with Frankish craftsmanship. The red stone could also be a symbol of power, she added. “The gold ring is probably a woman’s ring and may have belonged to a prince’s daughter who was married to a prince in Emmerlev,” Pommergaard said. “Gold is typically [a] diplomatic gift, and we know that people have married into alliances.” She thinks the royal family in Emmerlev may have controlled an area between Ribe, a trade center in Southwest Jutland, and Hedeby, a Danish trade center in what is now Germany. Discoveries of other valuable ancient items in the surrounding area suggest that elites in Southern Jutland may have controlled important trade links and wielded greater influence than previously thought, added archaeologist Anders Hartvig of the Museum Sønderjylland. To read about Iron Age jewelry uncovered on the Danish island of Zealand, go to "Splendid Surprise."

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Thursday, February 22

France’s Beaumont Abbey Excavated

TOURS, FRANCE—The Miami Herald reports that the excavation of the entirety of Beaumont Abbey, including the church, cloister, peripheral buildings, abbey dwellings, the refectory, the kitchen, the parlor, cellars, ovens, pipes, washhouses, latrines, an icebox, the gardens, and dumping areas, has been completed. This is the first time a complete abbey site has been excavated in Europe, according to Philippe Blanchard of the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research. The remains of a medieval village were found under the oldest structures, which date to 1002. The Benedictine nuns were expelled from the abbey in 1790, at the start of the French Revolution. More than 1,000 burials, spread out over a parish cemetery, a cemetery for the nuns, a servants’ cemetery, and the village cemetery, were also uncovered. Nuns buried in the church’s nave were interred in wooden coffins with crucifixes, medals, and small bone crosses. Some of the more elaborate tombs are thought to have belonged to abbesses and important benefactors. Sets of rosary beads imported from Rome and statuettes likely connected to religious tourism were also recovered in the church. To read about two lead sarcophagi that were found underneath the floor of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, go to "Update: Notre Dame's Nobility."

DNA Study Identifies Chromosomal Disorders in Infant Remains

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by the University of Adelaide, statistician Adam “Ben” Rohrlach of the University of Adelaide, Kay Prüfer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and an international team of researchers screened some 10,000 DNA samples taken from human remains dating from the Mesolithic period through the mid-nineteenth century for evidence of autosomal trisomies, or a third copy of one of the first 22 chromosomes in the human genome. The researchers were able to identify six infants with Down syndrome, which occurs when a person carries an extra copy of chromosome 21. “This is the first time we’ve been able to reliably detect cases [of Down syndrome] in ancient remains,” Rohrlach said. The study also identified the remains of a perinatal infant who had Edwards syndrome, a condition caused by three copies of chromosome 18. “These individuals were buried according to either the standard practices of their time or were in some way treated specially,” Rohrlach added. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature Communications. To read about Neanderthal gene variants that occur in some living populations today, go to "Painful Past."

Lost Medieval Church and Burial Found Under Venice Piazza

VENICE, ITALY—According to a report in The Miami Herald, a rectangular stone-lined tomb dated to the seventh or eighth century has been found under Venice’s Piazza San Marco. The grave was found during an investigation carried out ahead of work to restore the plaza’s paving stones. Archaeologist Sara Bini said that the tomb holds the remains of seven people, including an eight-year-old child and a woman. Near the tomb, the researchers uncovered traces of walls and a floor identified as the Church of San Geminiano. Archival records show that the church was constructed in the early medieval period and destroyed in the early nineteenth century. To read about a stretch of Roman that is now submerged beneath a Venetian waterway, go to "A Trip to Venice."

Wednesday, February 21

Ancient Snake-Shaped Handle Uncovered in Taiwan

TAOYUAN CITY, TAIWAN—A snake-shaped handle to a pottery vessel has been uncovered in northwestern Taiwan, at a site where a large-scale stone tool processing center has also been found, according to a Newsweek report. Researchers led by Hung-Lin Chiu of National Tsing Hua University found the artifact in a sand dune. It has been radiocarbon dated to some 4,000 years ago. Chiu said the snake handle resembles a cobra, with its head raised and bulging skin folds on its head and neck. “Snakes are often regarded as symbolic animals in religion, mythology, and literature, and are considered to be the bridge between heaven and man,” due to their ability to shed their skin, he added. To read about an Egyptian tomb at Abusir whose entrance wall was carved with magical spells intended to ward off serpents, go to "Spells Against Snakes." 

Faces of Scots From the Past Recreated in Digital Portraits

PERTHSHIRE, SCOTLAND—The Guardian reports that the faces of four people whose remains were uncovered in central Scotland have been recreated by forensics and facial reconstruction expert Chris Rynn, with information obtained through the analysis of DNA, the chemical composition of bone, radiocarbon dating, and reconstruction forensics. The first digital reconstruction reveals a medieval man thought to have been killed by a traumatic injury between the ages of 18 and 25. His remains were found in a small, hastily dug pit. “He could have been stomped on by a horse or bludgeoned in the chest with some sort of mace-like object,” said bioarchaeologist Marc Oxenham of the University of Aberdeen. The second, a Cistercian nun who lived in the sixteenth century, likely limped from a broken foot. The face of a Bronze Age woman whose remains were found in a farmer’s field in 1962 represents the third reconstruction. She is thought to have been between 30 and 40 years old at the time of death, and she likely had lower back pain. Signs of trauma to her forehead may have caused her demise. The last reconstruction depicts a Pictish man who moved to central Scotland later in life and died in his 40s between A.D. 400 and 600. The analysis of his remains suggests that he grew up on the west coast of Scotland, or possibly in Ireland, ate a diet largely of produce, and suffered from osteoarthritis probably brought on by heavy agricultural work. The portraits will be displayed at the Perth Museum. For more on the Picts, go to "Letter from Scotland: Land of the Picts."

Replica Stone Axes and Adzes Tested

TOKYO, JAPAN—According to a Cosmos Magazine report, Akira Iwase of Tokyo Metropolitan University and his colleagues made 75 replica ax heads and adzes with a stone hammer, anvil, and grindstones from semi-nephrite collected in Japan’s Matsukawa River and Oumigawa River; hornfels from the Abo River on Yakushima Island; and tuff taken from the Fujikawa River. Thin strips of wood and fibrous grass were used to bind the stones to wooden handles. The tools were then tested in 15 different activities, including felling trees; shaping and scraping wood, antler, bone, and hides; and butchering animal carcasses. The macroscopic and microscopic wear marks on the tools were then recorded over the course of the experiments. The researchers also noted wear and tear on the stones that occurred during the manufacturing process, sharpening, transporting them in a bag with other tools, and trampling. Four of the axes remain unused for comparison. Iwase and his colleagues identified nine different types of fractures in the tools that resulted from different uses. The analysis could help future researchers determine how stone artifacts were used, and if early humans were able to fell and shape timber, which rarely survives in archaeological sites. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Journal of Archaeological Science. To read about shell fishhooks uncovered in a cave in Okinawa, go to "Japan's Early Anglers."

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