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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, January 24

U.S. Repatriates Artifacts to Iraq

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—According to a Los Angeles Times report, federal agents handed over a fragment of a cuneiform stone tablet and a rare hexagonal prism thought to have been used to teach children the alphabet some 4,000 years ago to Salwan Sinjaree, Iraq’s consul general in Los Angeles. Chad Fredrickson of Homeland Security Investigations said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found the tablet for sale in an online auction. After the artifact was examined by a scholar, the purchaser agreed to turn it over to federal agents for return to the government of Iraq, which had not approved its export as required under Iraqi law. Operators of a private gallery in Los Angeles alerted federal agents and handed over the prism, which had come into their possession without a chain of provenance. Frederickson said scholars determined the tablet fragment may have come from the ancient city of Umma, which has been heavily looted in recent years. Sinjaree said the artifacts will be placed in a museum by Iraq’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs. For more on cuneiform, go to "The World's Oldest Writing."

Scythian Graves Uncovered in Siberia

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that a team of researchers excavated two graves at southern Siberia’s Chinge-Tey site, which is known for its many large barrows surrounding a great barrow thought to belong to a nomad prince. One of the 2,500-year-old graves was found in the central part of a barrow measuring about 80 feet in diameter. The wooden burial chamber contained the remains of a woman estimated to have been about 50 years old at the time of death, and a child between the ages of two and three. Next to the woman’s skeleton, the researchers found gold ornaments, an iron knife, a bronze mirror, and a wooden comb decorated with engravings. The comb was attached to the mirror with a piece of leather, and the two items were stored in a leather pouch. “A particularly interesting artifact was a golden pectoral ornament, a decoration hung at the neck in the shape of a sickle or crescent,” said Łukasz Oleszczak of Jagiellonian University. Such pectoral ornaments are usually found in men’s graves, he added. “It seems that, like the others buried in this barrow, she belonged to the prince’s entourage,” Oleszczak said. A second grave, consisting of a pit surrounded by stones, was found in the ditch surrounding this barrow. It held the remains of a teenager who was buried without any grave goods. To read about Scythian warrior women who were buried in what is now Russia, go to "Arms and the Women."


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Friday, January 21

Archaeologists Will Study Life on the International Space Station

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—According to an NPR report, researchers led by archaeologists Alice Gorman of Flinders University and Justin Walsh of Chapman University will study “space culture” on the International Space Station (ISS), which opened in November 2000, by examining a grid made up of photographs taken by crew members. In this first phase of the project, the daily photographs will allow the archaeologists to investigate life on board the ISS as it changes over a 60-day period. Walsh explained that there are social and cultural dimensions to the problems the scientists on board the ISS face when working to solve technical, engineering, and medical issues. In particular, Gorman and Walsh plan to examine how the crew of the ISS interacts with each other and with equipment that originated in countries other than their own; see if the objects on board reflect gender, race, class, and hierarchy; and determine if the crew alters the ISS to suit their needs and desires. To read about the extraterrestrial origins of glass incorporated into an ancient Egyptian pectoral, go to "Scarab From Space."

Study Considers Placement of Japan’s Imperial Tombs

MILAN, ITALY—According to a statement released by the Polytechnic University of Milan, researchers Norma Baratta, Arianna Picotti, and Giulio Magli used high-resolution satellite imagery to analyze the position of more than 100 megalithic tombs constructed in Japan between the third and seventh centuries A.D. Many of these tombs, known as kofun, are keyhole-shaped. Larger tombs are thought to have been built for emperors, while smaller ones may have belonged to other members of royal families or court officers. The study suggests that the tombs are oriented toward the arc of the rising sun. In particular, the largest of the known tombs, the Daisen Kofun in Osaka Prefecture, is oriented toward the rising sun at the winter solstice, the researchers explained. This alignment of the tombs may be linked to the imperial tradition that considered Japan’s emperors to be descendants of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, they concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Remote Sensing. To read about a recent DNA study of modern Japanese people, go to "Japan's Genetic History."

Thursday, January 20

Possible Bronze Age Drinking Straws Identified in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—Gizmodo reports that eight gold and silver tubes discovered in 1897 in a burial mound in the northern Caucasus may have been used as drinking straws, and not as scepters, as had been previously thought. The tubes were found next to one of three individuals buried in the Maikop kurgan some 5,000 years ago. When archaeologist Viktor Trifonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues recently examined the interior of the objects, they detected traces of barley starch granules, fossilized bits of other plants, and lime tree pollen. The residues, Trifonov explained, indicate the tubes could have been used to consume a beverage, perhaps a fermented barley beer flavored with herbs and lime flowers. Metal strainers in the tips of the straws could have filtered out impurities in the liquid, he added. A large vessel recovered from the kurgan would have held about seven pints—enough for eight drinkers to sip as a communal activity. Artwork dated to the fourth and fifth millennia B.C. depicting such communal use of straws has been found in Iraq and western Iran. “Such practices must have been important and popular enough to spread between the two regions,” Trifonov said. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Antiquity. To read about excavations of another kurgan in southern Russia, go to "Rites of the Scythians."

Mummies in Rock-Cut Burial Chambers Found in Upper Egypt

ASWAN, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that a Greco-Roman–era tomb constructed in two sections has been discovered in Upper Egypt by a team of Egyptian and Italian archaeologists. “It is a mass grave that includes more than one family,” said Patrizia Piacentini of the University of Milan. The entrance to the tomb consists of an aboveground rectangular building made with sandstone blocks and covered with a vault made of mudbricks. This structure leads to a rectangular courtyard and four rock-cut burial chambers, where some 20 well-preserved mummies were found, explained Abdel-Moneim Said Mahmoud of Aswan and Nubia Antiquities. Artifacts found in the tombs include offering tables, stone panels engraved with hieroglyphs, a copper necklace engraved with a Greek inscription, pieces of colored cartonnage, and wooden statues of the human-headed Ba bird, which were created to represent a person’s non-physical being. To read about the discovery of a 3,800-year-old unopened tomb in Aswan, go to "The Unseen Mummy Chamber."

Villa Site in Croatia Yields 1,800-Year-Old Statue Fragment

ZADAR, CROATIA—Total Croatia News reports that more than 860 square feet of marble flooring, a three-foot fragment of a statue of the Roman goddess Venus, and another piece that may have been the statue's base were uncovered at a construction site near Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The fragment ranges from the goddess’ knees to below her chest and is thought to have stood on a pedestal in the atrium of an urban villa between the second and fourth centuries A.D. “We found a precious and rare statue, which will be known more after its cleaning and conservation,” said underwater archaeologist Smiljan Gluščević. Broken pieces of fingers on the statue’s legs may have belonged to a figure of the god Mercury, who was often shown with Venus, explained researcher Nenad Cambi. A sewage canal, a wall lined in gray marble tiles, and a black-and-white mosaic covering about 40 square feet were also found at the villa site. To read about a terracotta figurine of Venus that was found at France's ancient Roman city of Vienna, go to "A Day by the Rhone."

Foundations of a Mining Headquarters Uncovered in Eastern Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the remains of a sandstone structure have been uncovered in the Wadi Al-Nasb area of the South Sinai Peninsula, near the sites of ancient turquoise and copper mines. Mostafa Waziri of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said the building may have been used as a mining administrative center as early as some 4,000 years ago, during the Middle Kingdom period. Situated next to an ancient well, the building had a sandstone floor, two main halls, two rooms, and a staircase leading to the roof, he added. Archaeologist Ayman Ashmawi explained that the building was eventually used as a copper workshop—furnaces, copper ore, copper ingots, crucibles, and slag were recovered from the site’s upper layers. To read about the world's oldest known geological map that was unearthed in Egypt, go to "Mapping the Past: The Goldmine Papyrus."