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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, May 23

Ancient Ochre Mine Uncovered in Wyoming

LARAMIE, WYOMING—According to a statement released by the University of Wyoming, excavations led by Wyoming's state archaeologist and researchers from the University of Wyoming have uncovered evidence of an ancient mine dated to around 13,000 years ago, where Paleoindians extracted hematite, an iron oxide from which they produced red ochre. The team uncovered thousands of artifacts associated with the mine and possible settlements nearby, including shell beads, quarrying tools made from antlers, and Clovis points, or stone projectile tips thought to have been made by some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. Researchers believe the mine is possibly the oldest of any kind yet uncovered in the Western Hemisphere. Red ochre is thought to have been used in a number of ways in Paleoindian, Archaic-period, and Woodland-period Native American societies, serving as pigment for body paint during rituals and for decorating burials. The Wyoming mine, known as the Powars II site, is the only red ochre quarry so far documented in the North American archaeological record north of southern Mexico, and only one of five quarries to have been identified in all of the Americas. To read more about how Paleoindians mined the earth for precious resources, go to "Off the Grid: Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Texas."

Maya Tooth Treatments May Have Prevented Infection

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—According to a Science Magazine report, sealants used by the ancient Maya to affix gemstones to their teeth may have had infection-fighting properties. During the Classic period (A.D. 200–900), many lowland Maya people in present-day Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico attached stones such as jade, turquoise, and pyrite to their teeth, typically as part of rites of passage. Dentists would drill holes into people’s teeth, then attach the stones using a sealant. As part of a new analysis of the chemical contents of the sealants, a team led by Gloria Hernández Bolio, a biochemist at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico, studied eight teeth found across the Maya empire. They determined that the sealants’ contents varied based on location, suggesting that local practitioners had their own recipes, but that most of the samples include ingredients from pine trees, which have been shown to fight bacteria that cause tooth decay. In addition, two teeth appear to contain sclareolide, a compound found in Salvia plants that has antibacterial and antifungal properties. And samples from the Copán region, near the border of Honduras and Guatemala, include essential oils from mint plants whose components may have anti-inflammatory effects. Hernández Bolio notes that the most important factor in creating the sealants was their binding properties, but that today’s Maya use the plants for medicinal purposes, so ancient people may have been aware of their salutary effects. To read more about Maya clothing, jewelry, and body modification, go to “From Head to Toe in the Ancient Maya World.”

Ancient Incense from Chinese Temple Analyzed

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—The South China Morning Post reports that researchers identified rare traces of incense in three containers dating to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) that were recovered from the underground palace of the Famen Royal Temple in northwestern China. The temple was known for housing an important sarira, or Buddhist relic––the finger bone of Sakyamuni Buddha, which historical documents record was worshipped by eight Tang emperors. Using chemical analysis, the researchers determined that one of the vessels contained fragrant agarwood and another elemi resin. A third silver container held a mixture of agarwood and frankincense. "The incense samples were mainly from abroad and transported to China through the land or maritime Silk Road," said Yimin Yang of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. "[The findings] reflect the incense trade and its function in Buddhist activities during the Tang dynasty." To read about Tang murals recently uncovered in a tomb in Shaanxi Province, go to "Beast Masters."

Neolithic Stone Circle Discovered in Cornwall

BODMIN, ENGLAND—The Cornish Times reports that archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown stone circle within the banks of Castilly Henge, a late Neolithic (ca. 3000–2500 B.C.) earthen enclosure where rituals are believed to have been carried out. Measuring 225 feet long by 205 feet wide and surrounded by a six-foot ditch, the henge was heavily overgrown until teams led by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit cleared the site over the winter. This allowed researchers from Historic England to survey the henge using remote sensing techniques such as ground penetrating radar, which identified seven buried stones composing a circle. This is only the second henge in Cornwall known to have a stone circle within its enclosure. To read about another recent Neolithic discovery in Cornwall, go to “By the Light of the Moon.”


More Headlines
Friday, May 20

Did Dog Jaws Adapt to a Domesticated Diet?

PERTH, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by Murdoch University, the muscle action required to consume a carnivorous or omnivorous diet may have influenced the shape of the lower jaw of domesticated dogs over time. Colline Brassard of Murdoch University and her colleagues examined the lower jaws of more than 500 European dogs who lived between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, and compared their structure with the jaws of modern dogs, wolves, and Australian dingoes. The shapes of the ancient European dogs’ jaws indicate that they ate tougher, harder foods than most modern dogs, Brassard said. Their greater biting force would have been useful for defense and hunting, she explained. She thinks the shape of domesticated dogs’ jaws likely shifted as they began to eat plant foods provided by humans. Modern dogs have also developed multiple copies of a gene that increases their ability to digest starches. Team member Trish Fleming of Murdoch University added that the shape of the lower jaws of dingoes falls between that of wolves and modern dogs. Dingoes arrived in Australia between 5,000 and 3,600 years ago, and they still consume a diet mainly made up of kangaroos and wallabies. Additionally, dingoes have just a single copy of the gene for digesting starches, which suggests they separated from the modern dog lineage before domesticated dogs adapted to an omnivorous diet, Fleming concluded. To read about specialized dog breeds that the Inuit introduced to North America 2,000 years ago, go to "Around the World: Arctic."  

Artifacts Hint at Chinese American Life in Early 20th-Century Oregon

EUGENE, OREGON—According to a statement released by the University of Oregon, an archaeological investigation conducted by archaeologists Chris Ruiz, Marlene Jampolsky, and Jon Krier ahead of a construction project in downtown Eugene identified pieces of a Chinese stoneware bowl, a porcelain teacup, three Chinese brown stoneware liquor bottles, and a Japanese porcelain vessel. A 1912 fire insurance map indicates that a Chinese restaurant and a gift shop stood in the area where the artifacts were found. The restaurant, the Smeede Hotel Grill, served Chinese food and was owned by Wing Kee, who was born in Oregon to Chinese parents in 1875. Kee’s father applied for U.S. citizenship in 1886, but was denied under the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1914, Wing Kee and his wife, Marie Westfall, opened the Hung Wo Chang & Co gift shop, which sold Chinese products to non-Chinese consumers. Historical documents also show that Wing Kee volunteered as a member of the United States food administration during World War I, while Marie Westfall worked as a Red Cross volunteer. The couple’s move out of the area in the 1920s was also recorded in local newspapers. For more on the first Chinese Americans, go to "America's Chinatowns."

Thursday, May 19

Hunter-Gatherer Land Management Studied in Germany

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—According to a statement released by the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum (S-HEP) at the University of Tübingen, a team of scientists including Shaddai Heidgen analyzed pollen, charcoal, and other materials in two sediment cores taken from southwestern Germany’s Ammer Valley for clues to the local vegetation over the past 11,500 years. The data suggests that between 10,100 and 9,800 years ago, there was plenty of moisture in the region to support grazing animals and the Mesolithic settlements uncovered nearby. The fires that occurred were likely brought about by natural causes, Heidgen explained. Then, about 9,500 years ago, the levels of pollen and charcoal in the sediment cores indicate that fires became more frequent, but were less intense. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may have set the fires to clear the increasing numbers of deciduous trees. Read the original scholarly article about this research in the Journal of Quaternary Science. To read about excavations of a 4,000-year-old ringed sanctuary in central Germany, go to "Letter from Woodhenge: Stonehenge's Continental Cousin."

3,500-Year-Old Spearhead Found in England

CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that a Bronze Age spearhead was found with fragments of pottery and flint tools in a southwestern England wetland. The items appear to have been placed in a pit. “Items like this are quite rare and during the Bronze Age they would have been equally as rare and quite special,” commented Alex Thomson of Cotswold Archaeology. The items may have been deposited by someone who lived in a settlement found in the area in the 1990s, he added. To read more about arms of the past, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World."

Study Suggests Herds Fueled Changes in Ancient Mongolia

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—According to a statement released by the University of Michigan, Alicia Ventresca Miller of the University of Michigan and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the University of Mongolia, and the National Museum in Mongolia tracked the Bronze Age consumption of dairy products in the Altai Mountains through the analysis of proteins recovered from human dental calculus. The researchers then compared what they found in the ancient plaque to archaeological evidence for the size of the population, the use of structured cemeteries, and the construction of large monuments. The study identified the consumption of milk from sheep, goats, and cattle in the beginning of the Bronze Age. The dietary changes brought about by keeping these herds then led to population growth. The development of more complex social systems in the region followed at about 1350 B.C., at about the same time that evidence for the earliest consumption of horse milk was detected. Initially, the researchers added, the consumption of horse milk was rare, and may have been limited to rituals. Read the original scholarly article about this research in PLOS ONE. For more on archaeological research in Mongolia, go to "Around the World: Mongolia."