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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, November 17

Chopin’s Cause of Death Determined

WARSAW, POLAND—In 2014, scientists led by Michal Witt of the Institute of Human Genetics at the Polish Academy of Sciences were given access to Polish composer Frédéric Chopin’s heart, which had been removed from his body after his death in Paris in 1849 and taken to Warsaw, where it has remained. According to a report in Live Science, the records of Chopin’s original autopsy have been lost, but the researchers briefly examined the organ, and photographed it, in an effort to determine the cause of his death at age 39. The heart, preserved in a liquid thought to be cognac, was “enlarged and floppy.” Witt said the team concluded Chopin’s immediate cause of death was pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane around the heart, a likely complication of tuberculosis. To read about investigations of ancient cardiovascular health, go to “Heart Attack of the Mummies.”

Economists Develop Model to Look for Ancient Cities

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a Washington Post report, historian Gojko Barjamovic and an international team of economists created an algorithm to process quantitative trade data recorded on more than 12,000 cuneiform texts written by Assyrian merchants some 4,000 years ago. The texts contained prices, population sizes, and data on cargo shipments among 26 ancient cities. Only the locations of 15 of those cities are known. The other 11 remain lost. Assuming that traders sent goods more often to cities that were closer to home, the researchers were able to estimate the distances between trade partners, and therefore estimate the locations of the 11 lost cities. They then checked their guesses against those of other historians, who had based their work upon descriptions of the landscape, or records of distances and directions. In most of the cases, the researchers concluded, their quantitative estimates were close to the sites suggested by historians. When historians disagreed on a possible location, the researchers found that the mathematical model could offer additional evidence. The team also checked their estimates against the locations of three known ancient cities, and found they were correct just twice. The third city was farther from the center of the Assyrian trade network, making the tool less precise, they explained. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

Wooden Shoes May Have Harmed Dutch Farmers’ Feet

LONDON, CANADA—According to a report in The London Free Press, bioarchaeologist Andrea Waters-Rist of the University of Western Ontario led a team of researchers who examined 500 skeletons of nineteenth-century dairy farmers who lived in the village of Middenbeemster in The Netherlands. The scientists found obvious bone lesions called osteochondritis dissecans on 13 percent of the farmers’ feet. Most populations have an occurrence of less than one percent. The lesions resemble craters in the bones, at the joints, as if chunks of bone have just been chiseled away, Waters-Rist explained. Wearing wooden clogs, which are poor shock absorbers, were probably to blame. Waters-Rist thinks people may have used the hard shoes, known as klompen, as hammers or to kick objects into place, injuring their feet. Wearing the clogs during hard physical labor could have also caused micro-injuries, she surmised. To read about a discovery in The Netherlands, go to “Caesar’s Diplomatic Breakdown.”


More Headlines
Thursday, November 16

New Thoughts on Ancient Wealth

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Agriculture, and the domestication of animals, led to increasing levels of inequality in human societies, according to an NPR report. Timothy Kohler of Washington State University and his colleagues speculate that wealthier individuals probably had bigger homes than their poorer neighbors. So they collected measurements of homes at 63 sites, including those belonging to nomadic groups, people who grew food on a small scale, and those who lived in early Roman cities, all dating between 9000 B.C. and A.D. 1500. The data suggest that the arrival of agriculture in Europe and Asia ushered in a greater disparity between rich and poor than that found in the New World. “This was a total surprise,” Kohler said. He thinks the presence of domesticated cows, oxen, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs in the Old World could have contributed to the difference. Animals like oxen and horses could have helped some farmers gain an edge because they could plow more fields, and thus produce more food, than farmers who did not own animals. To read about a form of animal domestication pursued in the New World, go to “The Rabbit Farms of Teotihuacán.”

Gold Artifacts From Tutankhamun’s Tomb Reassembled

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Ahram Online reports that a German-Egyptian team of researchers and conservators has examined a collection of pieces of embossed gold from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The artifacts were discovered on the floor of the tomb’s antechamber and in the treasury, close to the royal chariots, and were photographed by Howard Carter’s team in 1922. Due to their delicacy, the objects were then packed away and placed in storage at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, where they remained for more than 90 years. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat of the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz reassembled the fragments of gold into pieces they suspect were decorative fittings for quivers and bridles. Archaeologist Julia Bertsch of the University of Tübingen said the embossed decorations include motifs from Egypt and the Middle East. Differences in the composition of the gold in different pieces suggest the artifacts were crafted in different workshops. To read about a recent discovery in Egypt, go to “In the Time of the Rosetta Stone.”

Early Images of Domesticated Dogs Found in Arabia

JENA, GERMANY—According to a report in Science Magazine, images of dogs thought to have been carved some 8,000 years ago have been found on rock panels in the Arabian Desert. Archaeologist Maria Guagnin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, working with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage, has catalogued more than 1,400 rock art panels at Shuwaymis and Jubbah. In all, 156 images of hunting dogs have been recorded at Shuwaymis, and 193 at Jubbah. All of the dogs appear to be domesticated, with pricked up ears, short snouts, and curled tails, and are shown with individualized coat patterns, stances, and genders. Zooarchaeologist Angela Perri of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said the dogs in the carvings resemble today’s feral Canaan dog, which lives in the deserts of the Middle East. Some of the dogs in the rock art are shown facing wild donkeys, or biting the necks of ibexes and gazelles—animals that would have probably been too fast for human hunters to bring down without canine assistance. Lines, which presumably represent leashes, connect the dogs to the waists of hunters armed with bows and arrows. These animals may have been kept close because they were especially valued, or they may have been new dogs undergoing training. To read in-depth about dogs in the archaeological record, go to “More Than Man's Best Friend.”

Wednesday, November 15

Remains of First Australians Repatriated

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Guardian reports that the 40,000-year-old remains of “Mungo Man” and more than 100 other early Australians have been handed over to traditional owners for reburial in southeast Australia. “Mungo Man” was discovered in 1974 at Lake Mungo, now a dry lake bed, by geomorphologist Jim Bowler of Australian National University. Since their discovery, the remains have been in the custody of Australian National University and then the National Museum of Australia. “It is an amazing day and a privilege to be part of,” said Bowler, who is now 88 years old. To read about another recent discovery in Australia, go to “Death by Boomerang.”

Copper Detected in Ancient Egyptian Ink

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Tests of ancient Egyptian papyri suggest that metal-filled black ink was used across Egypt from roughly 200 B.C. to A.D. 100, according to a report in Cosmos. It had been thought that most writing had been completed with carbon-based ink until the fourth or fifth century A.D. Thomas Christiansen of the University of Copenhagen and his team analyzed inks from papyri printed before 88 B.C., and a second group of papyri dated up to the second century A.D., with radiation-based X-ray microscopy at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. All four varieties of ink identified on the papyri contained copper, in the form of the minerals cuprite, azurite, and malachite. The researchers think soot and charcoal created during the process of removing copper from ores may have been used in the ink. Christiansen notes the blue pigment used by the ancient Egyptians was produced with copper scraps from the metal workshops attached to temples. For more on the use of Egyptian blue, go to “Hidden Blues.”

1,400-Year-Old Loom Discovered in Northern Iraq

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—According to a report in Seeker, recent excavations in northern Iraq led by Dirk Wicke of Goethe University uncovered traces of a loom dating to the fifth or sixth century A.D., and pieces of clay imprinted with images of griffins and horses that may have been seals placed on rolls of fabric. The loom, placed in the corner of a room, would have supported vertical hanging threads pulled straight by clay loom weights. A bench of six mudbricks had been situated in front of the loom, presumably so the weaver could insert the horizontal threads. Below the loom, the excavators found a cylinder seal dated to the Assyrian period, between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Two winged genies with a cone and a bucket of liquid thought to have been used during a purifying ritual appear on the seal. “It is difficult to pinpoint an exact meaning to it, but this image was very often depicted in the royal palaces and appears to act as a beneficiary motif used to magically protect the king and inhabitants of the palace or palaces,” Wicke said. The team also uncovered a stone wall dating to the Assyrian period that may have been part of a watchtower. To read about an excavation in Iraqi Kurdistan, go to “Erbil Revealed.”

Silver and Gold Coins Unearthed at France’s Cluny Abbey

LYON, FRANCE—The Local reports that a medieval treasure trove has been found near the Cluny Abbey in eastern France. The excavation team, made up of researchers from the University of Lyon II and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, discovered the cache of twelfth-century coins while looking for the corner of the abbey’s infirmary. Most of the 2,200 silver coins were issued by Cluny Abbey. The 21 gold coins, which had been stored in a canvas bag, originated in the Middle East. Additional gold items include a gold signet ring engraved with the word “Avete,” a Latin greeting, and a folded piece of gold leaf. Team member Vincent Borrel said that in their time, the items discovered would have been able to purchase a six-day supply of bread and wine for the abbey. For more, go to “France’s Roman Heritage.”