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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, March 4

Egyptian Mummification Manual Found in Medical Text

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—According to a statement released by the University of Copenhagen, Sofie Schiødt and her colleagues have found evidence of an ancient Egyptian embalming process in the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, a 3,500-year-old medical text dated to 1450 B.C. Most of the volume describes herbal medicines and skin illnesses, but it also contains recipes for unguents, the uses of different types of bandages, and advanced embalming instructions, including a procedure for preserving the face of the deceased. Schiødt said the text describes how to coat a piece of red linen with a liquid made from aromatic, antibacterial plants and binders and apply it to the face. The text also instructs embalmers to work on the mummy every fourth day, marking the interval with a ritual procession, for 17 intervals. The body was covered with cloth and straw infused with aromatics on other days during the embalming period. Several mummies from this period have been found with cloths and resins over their faces, she added. To read about the origins of the mummification process, go to "Mummification Before the Pharaohs," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Sealed 17th-Century Letter Read With X-Ray Technology

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by Queen Mary University of London, an international team of researchers used an X-ray microtomography scanner to read a 300-year-old letter while leaving its seal intact. The letter, which had been folded in on itself to become its own envelope, is one of 2,660 letters found in a postal trunk that had never been delivered. The trunk and the letters are now housed at the Dutch National Postal Museum in The Hague. Previous attempts to read such letters often resulted in damage to the fragile documents. Team members Graham Davis and David Mills said the highly sensitive X-ray scanner was developed to map the mineral content of teeth, but it is also capable of detecting minute amounts of metal in historic ink. Once the scans were completed, they were assembled with an algorithm so that the letters could be “virtually unfolded” and read. In this letter, dated July 31, 1697, Jacques Sennacques asked his cousin, Pierre Le Pers, a merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of the death notice of Daniel Le Pers. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature Communications. To read about another discovery from the Netherlands, go to "Letter from Leiden: Of Cesspits and Sewers."

Ottoman-Era Bath and Byzantine Doorway Found in Greece

MYTILENE, GREECE—According to a statement released by Greece’s Ministry of Culture and Sports, restoration work and surveys at the site of the medieval castle of Mytilene, which is located on the island of Lesbos, revealed a sixteenth-century A.D. bath complex complete with incinerators and vaulted hot, warm, and cold rooms, and a fortified doorway that may have been part of the Byzantine settlement of Melanoudi. The ten-foot-tall door, constructed with nine slabs of local grey marble, was buried in layers of ash from heating the later Ottoman bath. Holes in the lintel suggest it had a wooden door. Pottery and bronze coins dated to the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. were also recovered. To read about healing sanctuaries in ancient Greece, go to "To Reach the Gods."


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Wednesday, March 3

Researchers Reconstruct Faces of Medieval Bohemian Dukes

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC—Radio Prague International reports that a team of researchers has reconstructed the faces of Spytihnĕv I and Vratislav I, the sons of Ludmila of Bohemia, who died as a Christian martyr in A.D. 921. Spytihnĕv I is remembered as the Duke of Bohemia from 895 until his death in 915, when Vratislav I, father of Wenceslaus I, or “Good King Wenceslas,” became duke. The brothers’ remains were unearthed at Prague Castle in the 1980s. First, detailed images of the bones were assembled using photogrammetry to form virtual 3-D models. Forensic facial reconstruction expert Cicero André da Costa Moraes then added muscles to the virtual skulls. “I do the reconstruction without knowing who the person was,” he said. DNA extracted from the bones provided information about eye and hair color, he added. “We could dress them in [authentic] clothes based on miniatures or manuscripts, since they are preserved,” added archaeologist Jan Frolík. “As for their hair [styles] and beards, we made educated guesses according to illustrations in the manuscripts. But we don’t really know.” To read about the 1,000-year-old skeleton of a warrior buried in Prague Castle, go to "The Man in Prague Castle."

X-Rays Reveal Secrets of Little Foot’s Skull

OXFORD, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that the skull of “Little Foot” traveled from South Africa to Britain, where it was examined at Diamond Light Source with synchrotron X-ray imaging technology. Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand explained that the nearly complete remains of this possible early human ancestor were discovered in the 1990s in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves, dated to 3.67 million years ago, and identified as Australopithecus prometheus. Little Foot’s anatomy suggests Australopithecus prometheus had a chimpanzee-size brain, a gorilla-like face, strong hands able to climb trees, and legs capable of upright locomotion. The non-invasive study allowed the scientists to produce highly detailed images of the skull. Paleoanthropologist Amélie Beaudet of the University of Cambridge said signs of periods of distress during childhood, such as malnutrition or disease, were recorded in the well-preserved dental tissues. The images also revealed vascular canals in the cranial vault that are similar to those found in modern humans. In modern humans, the vessels are thought to help keep the brain at the right temperature. “It was only later in evolution that the brain grew dramatically,” Beaudet explained. For more on Little Foot, go to "Sticking Its Neck Out."

Tuesday, March 2

New Colors Revealed in Etruscan Tomb Paintings

PISA, ITALY—Multi-illumination hyperspectral extraction (MHX) has been used to reveal previously unseen details in 2,500-year-old Etruscan tomb paintings, according to a Live Science report. Gloria Adinolfi of Pegaso Srl Archeologia Arte Archeometria said that some colors in the paintings have faded, while others have survived, resulting in distorted images. In particular, reds tend to outlast greens, she explained. To get an idea of what the paintings originally looked like, images of the artworks were taken in visible, infrared, and ultraviolet bands of light. The data were then processed with statistical algorithms. Vincenzo Palleschi of Italy’s National Research Council said the researchers detected the presence of Egyptian blue, which has a very specific response in a single spectral band, in addition to other colors. Using this information, the team members were able to reveal the previously unknown image of a person carrying an object in the Tomb of the Monkey, which was named for its image of a monkey sitting in a tree in a background that had just been seen as a red blur. To read about the impressive burial of an Etruscan noble family unearthed at the site of Vulci, go to "The Tomb of the Silver Hands."

Scientists Study Neanderthal Hearing Ability

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—According to a CNN report, a new study of Neanderthal ear bones suggests that the hominins were capable of hearing sounds similar to modern human speech. Rolf Quam of Binghamton University and his colleagues used CT scans to produce 3-D models of fossilized ear bones of Neanderthals, modern humans, and early hominins thought to be Neanderthal ancestors. They then measured how sound traveled through the ear canal, to the ear drum, through the middle ear bones, and into the inner ear. The researchers determined that Neanderthals could hear a wider range of sounds than their ancestors, and had the capability to distinguish between consonant sounds. “Neanderthals could have produced all the sounds in that frequency range, like we can,” Quam explained. “There does not seem to be any difference in their ability to produce speech sounds.” For more recent research on Neanderthals, go to "Painful Past."