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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, August 15

Egyptian Science Texts Translated in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports than an international team of researchers is translating previously unpublished ancient Egyptian texts in the collections of the University of Copenhagen. Egyptologist Kim Ryholt said the topics of the works include medicine, botany, astronomy, and astrology, and are likely to contribute to scholars’ understanding of the history of science, since Egyptian ideas spread to Greece, Rome, and the Middle East. The kidneys, eye diseases, and pregnancy are among the topics covered in medical texts investigated by the researchers so far. One 3,500-year-old papyrus prescribes a method of determing the sex of an unborn child. “The text says that a pregnant woman should pee into a bag of barley and a bag of wheat,” explained Sofie Schiødt of the University of Copenhagen. “Depending on which bag sprouts first reveals the sex of her child. And if neither of the bags sprout then she wasn’t pregnant.” A similar pregnancy test has been found in German folklore dated to 1699. “That really puts things into perspective,” Schiødt said, “as it shows that the Egyptian ideas have left traces thousands of years later.” To read about a recently translated religious text from Egypt, go to “Divine Invitation.”

Christian Pectoral Cross Unearthed in Bulgaria

KARDZALI, BULGARIA—Excavation of a Christian bishop’s residence dating to the early fifth century A.D. continues in southern Bulgaria’s ancient Thracian city of Perperikon, according to Archaeology in Bulgaria. The residence was part of a 70-foot-long basilica. “This is one of the earliest ensembles [of religious Christian buildings] in all of early Christian Europe,” said archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov. The front piece of a bronze engolpion cross, complete with depictions of the crucified Christ figure and the four Christian saints known as the Evangelists, was found within the building. Such crosses were designed to be worn on the chest, suspended by a chain, and are now worn as a symbol of a bishop’s rank. This cross, dated from the tenth to twelfth centuries A.D., may have held relics of a saint. Ovcharov thinks the well-worn cross may have been worn for more than 100 years, since the faces of its figures are worn off. To read about another recent discovery in Bulgaria, go to “Mirror, Mirror.”

Evolution of the Big Toe Studied

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN—According to a BBC News report, Peter Fernandez of Marquette University led a team of researchers who made 3-D scans of the toe bones of living and fossil primate species and human relatives, and compared them to scans of the toes of modern humans. The study suggests early hominins, beginning with Ardipithecus ramidus some 4.4 million years ago, would have been able to walk upright while still having an opposable big toe for climbing and grasping. The scientists found that hominin feet changed slowly and were versatile, with the modern big toe—and the commitment to upright walking—emerging later than other modern foot features. “It might have been last because it was the hardest to change,” Fernandez said. To read about recent study of the oldest known hominin footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”


More Headlines
Tuesday, August 14

Ancestral Puebloans May Have Bred Scarlet Macaws

STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA—According to a Smithsonian Magazine report, a new study of scarlet macaw bones unearthed in New Mexico suggests the birds were bred in captivity and raised with a great deal of specialized care and effort at a single, small aviary in what is now the southwestern United States or northwestern Mexico by ancestral Pueblo peoples between A.D. 850 and 1150. Richard George of Penn State University and his team extracted mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 14 macaws recovered from five different sites in Chaco Canyon and the Mimbres region of New Mexico. They found that all 14 birds shared a similar heritage, and more than 70 percent of them likely shared a maternal lineage. “This is important… not only the population history of macaws and human interaction, but also what was happening between groups of people,” George explained. Images of macaw chicks on Mimbres pottery also support the idea that the fast-growing birds were raised locally. It had been previously suggested that macaws in North America had been imported from the Paquimé aviary in Mexico, which was most active between A.D. 1250 and 1450. Such a long journey from Mexico to Chaco Canyon would have taken more than a month. For more on evidence of macaws in the American Southwest, go to “Angry Birds.”

Evidence of Çatalhöyük Climate Conditions Found in Fat Residues

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Science Magazine reports that biochemists Mélanie Roffet-Salque and Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol and their colleagues analyzed the residues on pottery from the site of Çatalhöyük, which is located in central Turkey, for clues to how a shift in the climate some 8,200 years ago might have affected early farmers. The scientists speculated that drought could have damaged crops and grazing lands, while cooler weather could have increased the food needs of the farmers’ sheep, goats, and cattle. A technique called gas chromatography—mass spectrometry revealed that the fat residues on the pottery dating to the time of the climate shift contained about nine percent more heavy hydrogen—an isotope that correlates with lower levels of precipitation—than sherds from other periods. The researchers also note the higher number of cut marks on animal bones beginning about 8,200 years ago, suggesting that the farmers ate every morsel of available food, and a drop in the number of cattle bones and a rise in the number of goat bones. Goats may have been better at surviving in drought conditions. To read about a figurine discovered at Çatalhöyük, go to “Figure of Distinction.”

Excavation of Artemis Temple Underway in Central Greece

EVIA, GREECE—A team of researchers led by Karl Reber of the Swiss Archaeological School in Greece and Amalia Karappaschalidou of the Evia Ephorate of Antiquities has uncovered a variety of artifacts at the sanctuary of Artemis near Amarynthos, according to The Greek Reporter. The site, discovered last year, was the end point of an annual procession from the ancient city of Eretria. The items include embossed tiles bearing the name “Artemis”; statue bases inscribed with dedications to Artemis, her brother Apollo, and their mother, Leto; and a copper and quartz object that may have been part of a larger statue. Scholars suggest the temple, which is thought to have been destroyed by a natural disaster in the first century B.C., and rebuilt in the second century A.D., helped to strengthen Eretria’s border. The excavation team also found evidence of earlier buildings at the site, dating back to the tenth century B.C. To read in-depth about study of the temple of Hera at the site of Olympia, go to “A New View of the Birthplace of the Olympics.”

Monday, August 13

Looted Artifacts Returned to Iraq

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, a collection of eight ancient artifacts seized by the London Metropolitan police from an antiquities dealer have been repatriated to Iraq, based upon an identification made by scholars at the British Museum. Cuneiform inscriptions on the 5,000-year-old ceramics named a Sumerian king, a temple, and a dedication, which indicated they had been taken from Iraq’s ancient city of Girsu. British Museum archaeologist Sebastian Rey and his Iraqi colleagues were able to find the holes in the Eninnu temple’s mudbrick walls that had held the objects, and broken pieces at the site that had been discarded by the looters. “This is a very happy outcome,” commented St. John Simpson, assistant keeper at the museum’s Middle East department, “nothing like this has happened for a very, very long time if ever.” To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

Section of Roman-Era Street Unearthed in Bulgaria

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA—The Sofia Globe reports that archaeologists working in the eastern part of the agora in the ancient city of Philippopolis have uncovered a 30-foot stretch of the Cardo Maximus, or main street. They also unearthed large fragments of the main façade, columns, and architectural elements of the Odeon, which had three or four entrances and a portico. Fragments of a marble statue of a prominent citizen named Sozipatar were also recovered. Text on the fragments indicate Sozipatar was given the right to sit in the theater’s front row. The building, which had been originally used by Philippopolis’s city council, was destroyed by an earthquake in the medieval period. To read about another recent Roman-era discovery in Bulgaria, go to “Mirror, Mirror.”

Carving Tools From Easter Island Analyzed

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—CNN reports that Dale Simpson, Jr., of the University of Queensland and colleagues think the idea that Easter Island’s Rapa Nui culture collapsed due to overuse of resources and competition to build the stone carvings known as moai may be overstated. Jo Anne Van Tilburg of the Easter Island Statue Project led a team that recently excavated four of Easter Island’s moai and uncovered more than 1,500 volcanic stone basalt carving tools. Chemical analysis of 17 of the recovered tools, which are known as toki, found that most of them came from one of three quarry complexes on the island. Simpson says this focused effort in one quarry points to craft specialization, information exchange, and cooperation among the Rapa Nui to produce the nearly one thousand statues, thought to represent important Rapa Nui ancestors. Van Tilburg cautions, however, that such focused labor may have been coerced, and more study is needed. To read about archaeological evidence of collaboration in Mesoamerica, go to “Kings of Cooperation.”