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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 24

Guatemala’s Magnetized Sculptures Studied

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Science News reports that geoscientist Roger Fu of Harvard University and his colleagues analyzed the magnetized areas of 11 of Guatemala’s 2,000-year-old potbelly sculptures. Some of the massive sculptures, which are generally round in shape and depict people holding extremely large stomachs with their arms and legs, are thought to have been carved from boulders magnetized by lightning strikes. Fu’s team suggests the ancient carvers looked for areas of the iron-rich basalt boulders that repelled magnetized minerals that they held in their hands, and then carved the figures’ foreheads, cheeks, and navels within those magnetic fields. Art historian Julia Guernsey of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the sculptures may have been intended to represent dead ancestors, and their capacity to repel magnetized objects may have been interpreted as indicating an ancestor’s presence and authority. For more, go to “Letter from Guatemala: Maya Metropolis.”

Section of Pictish Fort Uncovered in Scotland

MORAY, SCOTLAND—According to a report in The Scotsman, a section of eighth-century defensive wall has been uncovered in northern Scotland, on the coast of a peninsula that projects into the Moray Firth, by a team of researchers led by Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen. Preserved pieces of timber lacing were found in the ten-foot-long section of Pictish rampart. “It really reinforces the huge investment in resources that was undertaken to construct the fort at Burghead,” Noble said. “The timber lacing is one of the best preserved in Europe.” Beam slots in the wall supported the fort’s wooden structure, he added. The abundance of charcoal at the site indicates the fort was destroyed by fire. A Pictish longhouse, coins, and pottery have also been uncovered. Coastal erosion now threatens the site. To read in-depth about archaeology in northern Scotland, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Researchers Analyze Wound in Ancient Greek Skeleton

GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK—A team of researchers at Adelphi University, led by anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis, examined the skeletal remains of a well-muscled man recovered from the Greek island of Thasos and attempted to determine how he died some 2,000 years ago, according to a Live Science report. Agelarakis found a nearly perfectly round hole, positioned at a 90-degree angle, in a fragment of the man’s sternum. He thought the fatal wound might have been made with a styrax, or seven-sided thrusting spear. Members of the Adelphi University art department, with the assistance of Agelarakis’ wife, anthropologist and scientific illustrator Argiro Agelarakis, created several replica weapons to attempt to recreate the hole. They soon realized that a thrown spear would not have produced a hole in a surface at a 90-degree angle, and determined the man was probably immobilized and stabbed with extreme force. Dental analysis suggests the man’s diet changed for the worse shortly before he died, Agelarakis added. The team members suggest the man may have spent time as a prisoner before being executed. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to “Epic Find.”


More Headlines
Tuesday, April 23

Ming Dynasty Porcelain Workshop Identified in Eastern China

JIANGXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Xinhua reports that a wall uncovered in the city of Jingdezhen, at the foot of southeastern China’s Zhushan Mountain, was part of an imperial ceramic workshop dating to the early Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368–1644). Fragments of rare royal porcelain were found within the wall ruins of the complex, and porcelain that was not selected by the royal family for use was found in burial pits near the structure, according to Jiang Jianxin of the Ceramic Archaeology Institute of Jingdezhen. The rejected pieces were deliberately smashed as part of a strict management system, Jiang explained. The city of Jingdezhen is known as China’s “Porcelain Capital” because porcelain was produced for imperial families and officials there for more than 1,000 years. To read about very early pottery from China's Jiangxi Province, go to “The First Pots.”

Scientists Spot Merchant Vessel Sunk During World War II

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report, SS Iron Crown, an Australian merchant freighter torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II, has been found under nearly 2,300 feet of water in the Bass Strait, which separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland. The ship sank within a single minute of being struck, and all but five of the 43 crew members were lost. Marine archaeologists mapped the wreck site and the surrounding sea floor with multibeam sonar equipment, and took pictures of it with a special drop camera, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization research vessel Investigator. Emily Jateff of the Australian National Maritime Museum said Iron Crown sits upright on the sea floor and appears to be relatively intact. The bow of the ship, its railings, anchor chains, and anchors were all visible during the camera survey. A memorial service will be planned for the site. To read about the discovery of the wreck of another ship that was torpedoed during World War II, go to “Finding Indianapolis.”

Greco-Roman Era Tomb Found in Upper Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Mostafa Waziri of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced the discovery of a sealed, rock-cut tomb in Aswan containing about 30 mummies, according to an Ahram Online report. The tomb is located in the Aga Khan Mausoleum area, where archaeologists have mapped some 300 tombs dating from the sixth century B.C. through the fourth century A.D. The newly discovered tomb dates to the Greco-Roman period and is made up of a stairway flanked by sculpted blocks of stone leading to funerary chambers. Patrizia Piacentini, head of the Italian-Egyptian archaeological mission, and her team members recovered pieces of two painted wood coffins, one of which was inscribed with the name of its occupant, and an invocation of the local gods Khnum, Satet, Anuket, and Hapy. “Leaning against the north wall of the room was an amazing intact stretcher made of palm wood and linen strips, used by the people who deposited the mummies in the tomb,” Piacentini said. Unpainted white cartonnage, bitumen for mummification, and a lamp were found near the entrance to the main room, along with fragments of painted funerary masks and a statuette of Ba-bird, depicted as a bird with a human head, who was thought to represent the soul of the deceased. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, go to “Family Secrets.”

Monday, April 22

Venomous Snake Parts Found in Prehistoric Human Coprolite

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS—Cosmos reports that researchers led by Elanor Sonderman of Texas A&M University discovered uncooked bones, scales, and the fang of a viper in a single human coprolite recovered from a rock shelter in southwest Texas. The sample of fossilized feces has been dated to between 1,460 and 1,528 years old. The researchers also detected traces of agave, prickly pear cactus, plants related to asparagus, and the uncooked bones of a small rodent in the sample. Sonderman said the viper parts are the first direct archaeological evidence of human consumption of venomous snakes, but further investigation of coprolites from the region is needed before scientists add them to the possible diet of the people who lived there. For more on the use of coprolites in archaeology, go to “America, in the Beginning: Paisley Caves.”

Byzantine Gold Coin Discovered in Northern Israel

GALILEE, ISRAEL—According to a report in The Times of Israel, several high school students discovered a Byzantine-era solidus depicting the emperor Theodosius II while orienteering near a stream in northern Israel. The goddess Victory holding the Staff of the Cross is shown on the gold coin's other side. Israel Antiquities Authority numismatic expert Gabriela Bijovsky said the coin was minted in Constantinople between A.D. 420 and 423, and is the first of its kind to be found in Israel. To read in-depth about archaeological exploration of a Byzantine-era shipwreck, go to “Shipping Stone.”

Possible Seventeenth-Century Massacre Site Found in Alaska

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—Live Science reports that researchers led by Rick Knecht and Charlotta Hillerdal of the University of Aberdeen have uncovered evidence of a massacre at a well-preserved Yup’ik village site in southwestern Alaska, where more than 60,000 artifacts, including dolls, figurines, wooden dance masks, and grass baskets have also been recovered from the permafrost. Some of the 28 people whose remains were discovered in a large defensive complex at the town of Agaligmiut, which is now often called Nunalleq, had been tied with grass rope before being killed, Knecht said. Most of the victims were women, children, and older men. “They were face down and some of them had holes in the back of their skulls from [what] looks like a spear or an arrow.” The complex in which the bodies were found was burned down sometime between A.D. 1652 and 1677, a period known in Yup’ik oral tradition for a conflict that began over an injury to a boy during a game of darts and escalated into the “bow and arrow wars.” “There’s a number of different tales,” Knecht explained. “What we do know is that the bow and arrow wars were during a period of time [called] the Little Ice Age, where it went from quite a bit warmer than it is now to quite a bit colder in a very short period of time.” The change in climate may have caused a food shortage that triggered the hostilities, he added. To read in-depth about previous excavations at Nunalleq, go to “Cultural Revival.”

Eighteenth-Century Inscription Unearthed in India

THANJAVUR, INDIA—According to a report in The Times of India, local people in the village of Perumagalur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu uncovered an inscribed stone measuring about five feet long and two feet wide at the Somanathar temple during renovation work. An archaeologist named Manimaran of the Saraswathi Mahal Library and a team of epigraphists determined the text was written in a script used to write the Marathi language, which was primarily spoken in the state of Maharashtra, located to the north. Manimaran explained that the text described donations made by the eighteenth-century Maratha ruler Prathaba Simhan to the temple. The text was repeated in the Tamil language on the other side of the stone, though this inscription is no longer legible, he added.