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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 30

Single-Celled Parasites Identified in Jerusalem’s Ancient Toilets

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Cambridge, traces of the single-cell parasite Giardia duodenalis have been detected in the soils associated with two 2,600-year-old toilets made up of stone seats situated over cesspits that were found at what were the homes of wealthy people in Jerusalem. Giardia can cause diarrhea, cramps, fever, and death. Initial microscopic examination of the soil taken from the toilets identified the presence of roundworm and other possible intestinal parasites. Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues continued the search for evidence of parasites in the ancient feces through the use of a biomolecular technique called “ELISA,” which uses antibodies to detect the presence of single-celled organisms. “Unlike the eggs of other intestinal parasites, the protozoa that cause dysentery are fragile and extremely hard to detect in ancient samples through microscopes without using antibodies,” explained team member Tianyi Wang. Because Giardia spreads via contaminated water and sometimes by flies, Mitchell concluded that it was probably widespread throughout the ancient city. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Parasitology. To read about the origins of another parasite that has plagued humans for millennia, go to "Dawn of a Disease."

Tombs and Workshops Uncovered at Saqqara Necropolis

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that two embalming workshops and two tombs have been unearthed at the Saqqara necropolis. Mostafa Waziri of the Supreme Council of Activities said that the rectangular-shaped workshops have been dated to the 30th Dynasty (380–343 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic period (304–30 B.C.). The first workshop contains the remains of beds thought to have been used to hold the deceased during the mummification process. Made of stone covered with plaster, the beds were equipped with gutters. Pottery, tools, and ritual vessels were also recovered from this workshop. Stone beds, pottery, bronze tools, and animal remains were recovered from the second workshop, which was constructed with mud walls and stone floors. “According to initial studies, it is believed that this particular workshop was used for the mummification of sacred animals,” Waziri said. The first of the two tombs, dated to 2400 B.C., is a flat-roofed structure that belonged to an official named Ne Hesut Ba, who served as head scribe and priest of Horus and Maat during the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty. The second tomb, dated to about 1400 B.C. and the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty, had been cut from the rock and belonged to a priest named Men Kheber. To read about another mummy workshop at Saqqara, go to "Mummification Workshop," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of the Decade.

500-Year-Old Shipwrecks Found in South China Sea

HAINAN PROVINCE, CHINA—The Guardian reports that two shipwrecks dated to the Ming Dynasty have been discovered nearly 5,000 feet underwater and about 12 miles apart in the South China Sea. One vessel had been leaving China, while the other had been returning, indicating that they had been traveling along a trade route. “It helps us study the maritime Silk Road’s reciprocal flow,” said Tang Wei of the Chinese National Center for Archaeology. The first wreck has been dated to the Hongzhi period, from 1488 to 1505. This vessel was carrying pottery and logs cut from persimmon trees. The second wreck, which had been loaded with more than 100,000 porcelain bowls, plates, and jars, has been dated to the Zhengde period, from 1506 to 1521. The research team is making plans to excavate and conserve the shipwrecks, explained team member Song Jianzhong. To read about another wreck in the South China Sea, go to "Pirates of the Marine Silk Road."

New Thoughts on France’s Upper Paleolithic Open Rings

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—According to a statement released by the University of Kansas, researchers Justin Garnett and Frederic Sellet think that so-called open rings made of reindeer antler found at Upper Paleolithic sites in France may have been finger loops for gripping spear-throwers. These 22,000-year-old rings were discovered in the late nineteenth century at Le Placard, Petit Cloup Barrat, and Cave à Endives, where other parts from spear-throwers have also been recovered. Garnett recreated the rings, which have a small opening with pointed tabs at either end, in elk antler, bone, and 3-D printed plastic. He then hafted the replica rings to reconstructed weapons for throwing darts that would have been heavy enough to use for hunting. With this finger loop configuration, he was able to throw darts more than 160 feet. The discovery could push back the use of the spear-thrower system by 5,000 to 6,000 years, Garnett concluded. For more, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Hunting Equipment."


More Headlines
Friday, May 26

Flood-Damaged Books Frozen in Italy

BOLOGNA, ITALY—The Guardian reports that ancient books and manuscripts damaged by recent deadly flooding in northern Italy’s region of Emilia-Romagna are being stored in industrial freezers provided by a frozen food company. So far, books have been salvaged by volunteers and the carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Bologna from the basement of a seminary in Cava, the Trisi Library in Lugo, and the archives of the Forlì town hall. Freezing could draw water out of the books and help prevent further damage in the drying and restoration process. To read about how technology is helping researchers read vanished texts on reused palimpsests, go to "Recovering Hidden Texts."

Risk of Flintknapping Injury Tabulated

KENT, OHIO—According to a statement released by Kent State University, the process of breaking, flaking, and shaping stones to create tools may have been a life-threatening undertaking for early humans. Metin I. Eren of Kent State University and Stephen Lycett of the University of Buffalo and their colleagues, Nicholas Gala and Michelle Bebber, surveyed 173 modern flintknappers, and determined that knapping is more dangerous than they had realized from their own experiences. The reported injuries included running a stone flake across bone like a wood planer, deep cuts into the outer covering of bones, and one incident requiring a tourniquet after piercing an ankle with a stone flake. Thirty-five of the people surveyed had even experienced a small stone flake fly into one of their eyes. These sorts of wounds could have been fatal in an era before emergency hospitals and antibiotics, so that early people literally risked life and limb to make tools, Eren said. Passing on the knowledge of flintknapping may therefore have included ways to reduce risks, he added. “The injury risks involved in knapping are exactly the kind of activity that would have made learning from a skilled individual more likely since it would help reduce the risks associate with individual learning,” he concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in American Antiquity. To read more about flintknapping as experimental archaeology, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Medieval Settlement Mapped in Northern Germany’s Mudflats

MAINZ, GERMANY—According to a statement released by Mainz University, traces of a large church have been found at Rungholt, a medieval trading center located on Germany’s northern coast that was submerged by storm surge in 1362. Research team member Dennis Wilken of Kiel University said that magnetic gradiometry, electromagnetic induction, and seismics were used to map the settlement’s remains, which are now hidden by mudflats in the UNESCO Wadden Sea World Heritage Site. Sediment cores, added Hanna Hadler of Mainz University, have also allowed scientists to map the placement of different structures and how the settlement changed over time. The study suggests that a church measuring about 130 feet long and 50 feet wide was situated in the center of the settlement. “The find thus joins the ranks of the large churches of North Frisia,” commented Bente Sven Majchczack of Kiel University. Traces of drainage systems, a sea dike with a tidal gate harbor, and two smaller churches have also been discovered. The researchers think Rungholt may have been a medieval administrative center. To read about the early history of Berlin, go to "Letter from Germany: Berlin's Medieval Origins."

2,700-Year-Old Saddle Found in China

YANGHAI, CHINA—A leather saddle dated to between 700 and 400 B.C. has been recovered from a woman’s grave at Yanghai cemetery in the arid desert of northwestern China’s Turpan Basin, according to a Live Science report. Saddles for horseback riding are thought to have originated in Central Asia around the middle of the first millennium B.C. “This places the Yanghai saddle at the beginning of the history of saddle making,” said Patrick Wertmann of the University of Zurich. The woman may have belonged to the pastoralist Subeixi culture, which is named after another cemetery northeast of Yanghai. She was dressed in a coat made of hides, woolen pants, and short leather boots. Placed in her grave as if she had been sitting on it, the saddle was formed from two cowhide cushions filled with a mixture of deer and camel hair and straw. Such a saddle would have helped a rider to maintain a firm position on horseback, even without stirrups, Wertmann explained. “Saddles helped people to ride longer distances, hence leading to more interaction between different peoples,” he added. Similarities in weapons, horse gear, and clothing suggest people from Yanghai may have had contact with the Scythians, who were nomadic early horse riders from the region of Russia’s Altai Mountains. The oldest known Scythian saddle has been dated to between the fifth and third centuries B.C. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Archaeological Research in Asia. To read about leather game balls that were unearthed in a burial at Yanghai cemetery, go to "Artifact."

Thursday, May 25

Sculpted Roman Heads Discovered in Cumbria

CARLISLE, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that excavation of a Roman bathhouse on the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club in northwestern England uncovered the sculpted heads of two Roman gods. The site, located not far from Hadrian’s Wall, was situated along a cobbled Roman road. Archaeologist Frank Giecco said the sandstone carvings have been dated to around A.D. 200, and likely topped full-figure statues that stood between 12 and 15 feet tall. “You can probably count on one hand examples of this kind in Britain,” he added. Pottery, weapons, and coins have been recovered from the bathhouse, in addition to the more than 30 semiprecious stones recovered from its drains earlier this year. For more on Hadrian's Wall, go to "The Wall at the End of the Empire."

Paddle Recovered From Chancay Culture Tomb in Peru

LIMA, PERU—BBC News Mundo reports that a tomb belonging to the Chancay culture has been discovered at the site of the Matacón cemetery, which is located on the coast of central Peru. The tomb is thought to be between 1,200 and 1,400 years old, making it the oldest to be unearthed in the cemetery. Five relatives or servants had been sacrificed and buried in the tomb alongside its high-ranking owner. The remains of four llamas, 25 vessels, and a paddle were also recovered. Although the investigation continues, researchers led by archaeologist Pieter Van Dalen Luna think that the paddle suggests the deceased, dubbed “Lord of the Waters,” was involved in fishing, shell fishing, or some type of marine activity. To read about a coastal capital built by the Chimú some 1,000 years ago, go to "Peru's Great Urban Experiment."

Late Roman Watchtower Discovered in Switzerland

SCHLATT, SWITZERLAND—Traces of a fourth-century A.D. Roman watchtower, including bricks, stones, mortar, roof tiles, and a foundation ditch, have been discovered by the Rhine River in northern Switzerland, according to a Live Science report. Archaeologist Hansjörg Brem of the Canton of Thurgau said that the base of the tower measured 23 feet square and had walls measuring three feet thick. Five to 15 people, perhaps soldiers and their families, may have lived in the tower, which was situated on the edge of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier, he added. A V-shaped trench near the structure likely held a wooden palisade. A part from a military belt, and a Roman coin dated to the reign of Constantine I (A.D. 306–336) were also uncovered. For more on Roman Switzerland, go to "Off the Grid: Saint Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland."