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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, September 20

New Dates Push Back Creation of India’s Tamil-Brahmi Script

TAMIL NADU, INDIA—According to a report in The Hindu, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department announced that new radiocarbon and accelerator mass spectrometry dates have been obtained for the site of Keeladi, which is located on the banks of the Vaigai River near the southern tip of India. Analyses of samples from the site indicate it was occupied as early as the sixth century B.C., or about 300 years earlier than previously thought. In addition to readjusting the timeline of the Sangam Era, the test results push back the age of the Tamil-Brahmi script and the advent of literacy in the region to the sixth century B.C., explained T. Udayachandran, the state commissioner of archaeology. More than 50 pieces of pottery bearing Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions were recovered at the site during recent excavations. Spindle whorls, bone-tip tools, terracotta spheres, a copper needle, and vessels for holding liquid—all tools thought to have been used to manufacture textiles—were also recovered. To read about another recent discovery in the state of Tamil Nadu, go to "India's Temple Island."

2,200-Year-Old Lion Statue Unearthed in Turkey

ÇANAKKALE, TURKEY—Hurriyet Daily News reports that archaeologists led by Nurettin Arslan of Onsekiz Mart University discovered a 2,200-year-old lion carved from stone at the site of the ancient city of Assos in northwestern Turkey. Arslan said the Hellenistic sculpture was found in a complex of buildings thought to have been used as an inn. The excavation team also uncovered a 1,500-year old oven with three pots in the city’s agora. To read about a lush first-century A.D. public park at Aphrodisias, go to "The Archaeology of Gardens: Urban Gardens."

Fossil Study Reconsiders Hominin Childbirth

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a BBC News report, Natalie Laudicina of Boston University and her colleagues examined six female fossil pelvises, which represent individuals who lived over a span of more than three million years, and found that each species probably faced its own challenges while giving birth. It had been previously thought that childbirth became more difficult over the course of evolution as hominins transitioned to upright walking. Today, a modern human fetus often requires assistance to rotate its large head through a narrow birth canal over a long period of labor, while chimpanzees and other non-human primates are able to deliver their infants alone and over a period of several hours. “There is a tendency to think about the evolution of human birth as a transition from an ‘easy,’ ape-like birth to a ‘difficult,’ modern birth,” Laudicina explained. She and her team found, however, that some three million years ago, Australopithecus afarensis females probably experienced a more difficult birthing process than Australopithecus sediba females, who lived about one million years later. For more on the physical traits of A. sediba, go to "The Human Mosaic."   

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Thursday, September 19

Mosaic Uncovered in Israel’s “Burnt Church”

HAIFA, ISRAEL—According to a Live Science report, a well-preserved mosaic floor dating to the late fifth or early sixth century A.D. has been uncovered at the site of a church in the ancient city of Hippos, which is located in northern Israel on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa said images of loaves of bread, fish, fruit, birds, and baskets in the mosaic could refer to two miracles described in the Christian New Testament, in which Jesus multiplied a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands of people, and his disciples collected leftovers. Although the purported location of the miracles is unclear, he added, the church may have been built in Hippos to mark the site where the miracles were believed to have occurred. Greek inscriptions in the mosaic indicate the structure was built by the church fathers for a martyr named “Theodoros.” The church was burned to the ground in the beginning of the seventh century during the Sasanian conquest. To read about a unique bronze mask found at Hippos, go to "Mask Metamorphosis."

Tiwanaku Vessels Unearthed at Bolivian Temple

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA—Ceramic vessels decorated with images of fish and birds have been discovered at the Kalasasaya temple at Tiwanaku, a spiritual and political center of the eponymous Tiwanaku culture located near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, according to an Associated Press report. Julio Condori of the Archaeological Investigations Center of Tihuanaco said the pots dated to between A.D. 400 and 600, and could help researchers understand the role of the Kalasasaya temple in Tiwanaku society. The vessels were arranged in a circle before they were buried, and may have been part of a funeral offering for a member of the nobility. To read about the use of hallucinogens in Tiwanaku rituals, go to "Half in the Bag." 

DNA Offers Clues to Denisovans’ Appearance

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Guardian reports that researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have produced a portrait of a young Denisovan woman based upon analysis of DNA extracted from her fossilized finger bone. Liran Carmel, David Gokhman, and their colleagues examined “methylation maps” for Denisovan, Neanderthal, and modern human genomes to track how actively different genes were expressed in their anatomies. Once the researchers had compiled a list of genes that were likely to have been active in this Denisovan genome, they compared the list to a medical database of human genetic disorders to look for clues as to how gene activity might affect skeletal structure and thus, the young woman’s appearance. In all, the researchers identified 56 areas of anatomy in which Denisovans differed from Neanderthals and modern humans. Denisovan skulls were probably wider than Neanderthal and modern human skulls, with longer jaws, which would have allowed for larger teeth, like the three recovered from Siberia’s Denisova Cave. Gokhman said that understanding what Denisovans looked like could help scientists understand how they adapted to their environment, and how those adaptations may have been passed on to people living today. To read about DNA analysis that revealed interbreeding between Denisovans and Neanderthals, go to "Hominin Hybrid," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2018.

Wednesday, September 18

Germanic Warrior’s Wooden Shield Conserved

HALLE, GERMANY—According to a report in The Art Newspaper, conservators have determined that a fragment of a painted wooden warrior’s shield discovered in a Germanic chief’s tomb in central Germany is 1,700 years old. Conservator Christian-Heinrich Wunderlich of the Landesmuseum in Halle said microscopic examination of the wood fragment revealed that the surface had been prepared with chalk and lime to create a smooth surface for layers of paint such as “Egyptian blue,” which was widely available in the Roman Empire, and vermillion, which was only available in a few places in the Mediterranean. “These pigments were not cheap and must have been Roman imports,” Wunderlich said. The shield would have measured about four feet across, and was probably painted on both sides, he added. The chief’s tomb also contained a gold neck ring and brooch, silver belts, spurs, a knife, coins, arrowheads, drinking glasses, a bronze vessel for mixing wine, and a bronze stool. Wunderlich explained that some of these objects may have been received as payment from the Romans for acting as a mercenary or conducting a looting expedition, while other items are thought to have been made in Scandinavia. To read about the Roman conquest of Germany, go to "The Road Almost Taken."

Tests Indicate Iceland's Walruses Disappeared After Viking Arrival

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Tange Olsen and Xénia Keighley of the University of Copenhagen radiocarbon dated the remains of 34 walruses recovered in western Iceland in an effort to learn if the island’s unique subspecies died out after the establishment of a permanent Viking settlement around A.D. 874, according to a New Scientist report. The study suggests that three of these animals lived during the Viking period, with the latest death occurring sometime between 1213 and 1330. It had been previously suggested that the walrus hunt described in a twelfth-century Icelandic saga, and the walrus skull and tusks sent to Canterbury to commemorate the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, may have involved animals that lived somewhere other than Iceland. The new dates suggest, however, that these animals could have been locals. In addition, to test the idea that the Icelandic walrus population simply left the island after the establishment of the Viking settlement and joined another walrus community, Olsen and Keighley’s team analyzed mitochondrial DNA obtained from the bones. They found that the Icelandic walrus subspecies is genetically distinct from walrus communities now living in other areas of the North Atlantic. “That was highly surprising,” Olsen said. To read about the surprising discovery of Pacific walrus bone fragments in a coffin with the remains of eight 19th-century humans, go to "World Roundup: England." 

Study Tracks Gestures Shared by Great Apes

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND—Earth.com reports that researchers led by Kirsty Graham of the University of St. Andrews have determined that as many as 90 percent of 70 identified communicative gestures used by wild bonobos and chimpanzees are shared by the two species, a rate much higher than would be expected to occur by chance. Such gestures include stroking the mouth to request food and raising arms to request grooming, Graham explained. The researchers asked human experiment participants to watch video clips of ten signs commonly used by chimpanzees and bonobos, and asked them to choose a correct meaning for each sign from four options. Some gestures, such as stroking of the mouth to request food, were identified correctly by the study participants more than 80 percent of the time. They correctly identified other signals about 52 percent of the time, Graham said. An earlier study conducted by University of St. Andrews psychologists identified gestures used by great apes in human children between the ages of one and two, and found that almost 90 percent of the 52 gestures used by the human children were shared with chimpanzees. Graham and her colleagues suggest today’s great apes and modern humans may have inherited a basic sign language from their last common ancestor. To read about why humans can throw harder and more accurately than great apes, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

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