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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 1

Digital Image Depicts “Himiko of Okitama”

YONEZAWA, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that a digital image of a woman who lived some 1,600 years ago has been created by a team made up of researchers from Tohoku University, the Yonezawa education board, and other research institutes. The scientists employed information collected from the woman’s remains, which were found in 1982 on the island of Honshu in one of the 200 graves in the Totsukayama burial mound group. Dubbed “Himiko of Okitama,” she had been buried with a long-tooth comb and a small knife. Analysis of her well-preserved genome indicates that she descended from people who migrated to the island from China during the Yayoi Pottery Culture Period, between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 250, and that she is an ancestor of the modern population of Japan. Her DNA was also used to determine her hair color and skin color in the digital image. Study of her bones was used to recreate her facial features. The study also suggests she stood about four feet, nine inches tall, and was about 40 years old when she died. Toshihiko Suzuki of Tohoku University added that the pattern of wear on the woman’s teeth suggests that she clenched them, resulting in a distorted jaw that likely affected her ability to chew. For more on the populations from which modern Japanese people descended, go to "Japan's Genetic History."

Maya Stucco Masks Revealed in Mexico

CHIAPAS, MEXICO—According to a statement released by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, over the past decade, a collection of 700-year-old stucco sculptures has been unearthed at the Maya site of Toniná, which is located in southern Mexico. Many of the sculptures depict the human face, according to archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo. “Here the human body is part of the decoration of the buildings,” he explained. One of the masks, found at the Temple of the Sun, has a shark tooth but lacks a lower jaw, thus indicating that the being is dead. This sculpture is thought to represent the lord of the underworld. Fragments of another sculpture are thought to represent Tlaloc, a god worshipped in central Mexico’s city of Teotihuacan. Others represent rulers; scenes from the sacred narrative, the Popol Vuh; and some may have been used as mannequins to fashion jade masks. “These faces, these portraits, look at us from the past, their gaze transports us to the royal court of the ancient and powerful Mayan kingdom of Po’o,” Angulo concluded. To read about a Maya creation story recorded in the Popol Vuh, go to "Piecing Together Maya Creation Stories."

Early Dog Identified in Spain’s Basque Country

BISCAY, SPAIN—According to a statement released by the University of the Basque Country, analysis of a 17,000-year-old canid humerus unearthed in northern Spain’s Erralla Cave in 1985 has revealed that it belonged to Canis lupus familiaris, or a domesticated dog. Conchi de la Rúa and her colleagues said that the dog shares mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the maternal line, with other known dogs that lived in Europe during the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic. Wolf domestication may have occurred earlier in western Europe than previously thought, de la Rúa added. Perhaps Paleolithic hunter-gatherers came into contact with wolves and other animals in areas of glacial refuge during the Last Glacial Maximum some 22,000 years ago, she surmised. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. To read about evidence for human consumption of dogs as far back as 7,200 years ago, go to "World Roundup: Spain."

Experiments Explore Possible Uses of Mesolithic Bone Tools

BERGEN, NORWAY—According to a statement released by the University of Bergen, a team of researchers led by Francesco d’Errico has investigated possible used for 23 bone tools discovered in South Africa’s Sibudu rock shelter. The tools, which all have a similar shape, were found in sediment layers dated to between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago. It had been previously thought that such bone tools were used for hunting or to process hides, but d’Errico and his colleagues suggest that these double-beveled tools were used to process plants. First, they examined the wear on the ancient tools under a high-resolution microscope, and then compared what they found to marks on experimental replica tools. Most of the tools, they concluded, had probably been used to collect tree bark for use as medicine and perhaps to dig in humus-rich soil where roots and tubers grew. D’Errico notes that these particular tools have not been found at other sites, and likely reflect a local adaptation to the environment. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Scientific Reports. To read about bone tools uncovered in a Moroccan cave that date to between 120,000 and 90,000 years ago, go to "Earliest Leatherworkers," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2021.


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Wednesday, November 30

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

ROME, ITALY—Excavation of the ancient sewer system at the Colosseum with robots has discovered the pits of figs, grapes, cherries, blackberries, and nut shells, according to a BBC News report. Alfonsina Russo of the Colosseum Archaeological Park said that the foodstuffs may have been eaten while Roman spectators watched gladiator battles some 2,000 years ago. The bones of bears and big cats, which may have been used during hunting games in which the animals were forced to fight each other and the gladiators, were also found, along with the bones of dogs. Finally, some 50 bronze coins dated from about A.D. 250 to 450, and a second-century A.D. silver coin commemorating 10 years of the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, were also recovered. To read about equipment gladiators used to fight in the Roman arena, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Gladiator Weapons."

Medieval Woman’s Burial in Switzerland Yields Gold Brooch

BASEL, SWITZERLAND—Swissinfo reports that the remains of a woman who was buried wearing a golden brooch, 160 pearls, an amber pendant, and a belt with an iron buckle and silver-inlaid tongue have been found in a seventh-century A.D. cemetery in northwestern Switzerland. The excavation was prompted by local construction work. “It appears to be a hotspot, a special place where particularly wealthy people were buried,” said Basel canton archaeologist Guido Lassau. Last summer, researchers working at the site uncovered the remains of a man who had suffered a sword injury to the head. To read about an iron folding chair discovered in a seventh-century A.D. woman's grave in central Germany, go to "Take a Seat."

Researchers Return to Site of Luxury Roman Villa in England

RUTLAND, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, John Thomas of the University of Leicester and his colleagues returned to a Roman villa complex in the East Midlands and uncovered the remains of a timber barn that had been converted into a multistory stone dwelling in the third or fourth century A.D. One end of the remodeled structure featured a Roman-style bath, while the other is thought to have continued as a space dedicated to agricultural or craft work. The researchers also investigated an extension on the main building in the villa complex where a mosaic depicting scenes from the Iliad was uncovered last year. The extension is thought to have served as a dining room, or triclinium. The recent work unearthed fragments of polished marble, stone columns, and painted wall plaster, in addition to corridors with mosaic floors in geometric designs that led to the triclinium. To read about a mid-fifth century A.D. mosaic uncovered at a Roman villa in Gloucestershire, go to "After the Fall."

Mummies With Golden Tongues Found in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—According to an Ahram Online report, poorly preserved mummies equipped with golden tongues have been discovered in the Quweisna necropolis, which is located in northern Egypt’s central Nile Delta, by a team of Egyptian archaeologists. Pottery, golden sheets shaped as scarabs and lotus flowers, amulets, scarabs, and vessels made of stone were also uncovered, said Mustafa Waziri of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Some of the human remains had also been covered with golden sheets, or placed in wooden coffins bearing traces of copper, he added. This section of the Quweisna necropolis was constructed with mudbricks and consists of a vaulted main hall with three vaulted burial chambers, and a burial shaft with two side chambers made of mudbricks, explained Ayman Ashmawi of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector. “Early studies of the burials, the mummies, and the funerary collection found indicate that this necropolis was used during three different periods: the late ancient Egyptian, the Ptolemaic, and part of the Roman period,” Ashmawi said. To read about mummies with tongue-shaped gold amulets placed in their mouths, go to "Around the World: Egypt."

Tuesday, November 29

Researchers Revisit Circumstances of Ötzi the Iceman's Death

INNLANDET COUNTY, NORWAY—Live Science reports that a new study of Ötzi the Iceman, who perished in the Italian Alps some 5,300 years ago, suggests that he might not have died in the gully where his mummified body was found. When Ötzi's body was found in 1991, archaeologists surmised that the man's body, clothing, and associated artifacts, including a backpack, bow, and quiver of arrows, had been preserved in place by the ice of a moving glacier. An arrowhead embedded in his shoulder, as well as a deep cut on his hand, indicated that Ötzi was probably killed during a conflict. Now, researchers led by archaeologist Lars Pilø of the Secrets of the Ice project propose that Ötzi died on the surface of an ice patch, and that his body and belongings were carried into the gully by periodic occurrences of ice thawing and then refreezing. The team also thinks that damage to Ötzi's equipment, which earlier researchers ascribed to combat, was likely caused by pressure from the surrounding ice. "There’s definitely been a conflict," Pilø said. "But what we say is that the damage to the artifacts is more easily explained by natural processes." Read the original scholarly article about this research in The Holocene. To read about analysis of Ötzi's clothing, go to "Ötzi's Sartorial Splendor."

How Did Paleolithic People Cook?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—A study of charred plant remains dating to as far back as 70,000 years ago has revealed how Paleolithic people prepared foods to make them more palatable, according to a Haaretz report. A team of researchers led by University of Liverpool archaeologist Ceren Kabukcu used a scanning electron microscope to analyze plant fragments processed by Neanderthals between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago in Shanidar Cave, which is located in the northwestern Zagros Mountains of Iraq, as well as plants cooked by humans around 12,000 years ago in Greece's Franchthi Cave. They found that both Neanderthals and early modern humans made foods that contained multiple ingredients, primarily pulses, such as lentils, as well as nuts and grasses. “The evidence from one fragment supports this idea that Neanderthals, much like the later Homo sapiens (early modern humans), were cooking plants," Kabukcu says. "Our evidence is also supported by previous studies that were done on plant starches trapped in the tartar preserved on Neanderthal teeth found in burials from the same [Shanidar] site." Both groups prepared their foods by soaking, pounding, and grinding the plants, many of which were naturally bitter due to the alkaloids and tannins in seed coats. Such techniques would have reduced, but not eliminated, the bitter taste, Kabukcu says. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Antiquity. To read about 31,000-year-old cooked snail shells uncovered in southwestern Spain, go to "Paleo-escargot."