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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, May 13

Bent Sword Found in 5th-Century Soldier’s Grave in Greece

THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Live Science reports that Errikos Maniotis of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and his colleagues have uncovered seven graves, including a 1,600-year-old soldier’s arch-shaped grave, in an early Christian basilica discovered in 2010 ahead of subway construction in northern Greece. The soldier was buried with a shield, a spear, and a spatha, a type of long straight sword used from about A.D. 250 to 450, that had been bent. “Usually, these types of swords were used by the auxiliary cavalry forces of the Roman army,” Maniotis said. Because he was buried in the basilica, Maniotis explained, the man may have been a high-ranking officer. However, folded swords are usually found in Northern Europe, and are considered to be a pagan custom. Maniotis thinks the man may have come from a Germanic tribe and blended his past with Roman and Christian ways. To read about an extraordinarily rich Bronze Age grave unearthed at the site of Pylos in Greece, go to "World of the Griffin Warrior." 

Novel Bacterial DNA Detected in Ancient Coprolites

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a Science Magazine report, a team of researchers led by microbiologist Aleksandar Kostic of Harvard University analyzed eight coprolites recovered from three rock shelters in Mexico and the southwestern United States to look for traces of the ancient human microbiome. The feces ranged in age from 2,000 to 1,000 years old. First, tiny samples were rehydrated and strands of DNA were recovered by archaeologist Meradeth Snow of the University of Montana, Missoula. Marsha Wibowo of Harvard University then separated out the human intestinal DNA from that of bacteria in the surrounding soil by looking for DNA damaged by time and DNA sequences associated with mammalian guts in previous research. She also found unfamiliar DNA thought to have come from extinct bacteria. “In just these eight samples from a relatively confined geography and time period, we found 38 percent novel species,” Kostic explained. Much of the DNA came from bacteria that are also found in modern people who live in nonindustrial societies and eat a high-fiber diet. The ancient microbiomes, however, lacked markers for antibiotic resistance. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature.

Early Bronze Age Burials Uncovered in Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Hurriyet Daily News reports that archaeological investigation in Istanbul ahead of the construction of a subway station near the European shore of the Bosphorus uncovered burials dated to between 3500 and 3000 B.C. Archaeologist Mehmet Ali Polat said some 80 burials were recovered among a series of kurgans and rows of stones. “A total of 75 of these 82 tombs belong to cremation, that is, bodies buried by burning,” he added. “Seven of them were direct burials.” Two terracotta figurines were recovered from one of the burials. Polat explained that symbols on the figurines have been identified as runic alphabet symbols from Romania’s Vinca culture, suggesting early Bronze Age migration and trade between Anatolia and the Balkans. To read about a Bronze Age settlement in southeastern Turkey that was suddenly destroyed more than 3,500 years ago, go to "The Wrath of the Hittites."

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Wednesday, May 12

18th-Century Monkey Bones Unearthed at Castle Site in England

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that the bones of three guenon monkeys, a species from central and western Africa, were unearthed at Nottingham Castle during an investigation carried out ahead of a construction project. The bones have been dated to the late eighteenth century, according to Gareth Davies of the York Archaeological Trust. “At that time, the ducal palace had been converted to apartments and these bones were just found in a levelling layer of rubbish,” he explained. The monkeys may have been the pets of Jane Kirkby, who lived at the castle from 1791 to 1825. Castle volunteer Yvonne Armitage said that she found a historical reference to a “large ape” that was Kirkby’s “constant companion.” Wear on the monkeys’ teeth indicates they had lived for a long time. Davies suggests they may have been buried in a grave that was later disturbed. To read about another excavation at an English castle, go to "Letter from England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North."

Rock-Cut Tombs Discovered in Upper Egypt

SOHAG, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that a recent survey revealed a series tombs carved into a mountainside at the Al-Hamidiya necropolis, which is located in southern Egypt near the west bank of the Nile River. People buried here are thought to have been elites in the nearby administrative center of Akhmim. Mostafa Waziri of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said the tombs span a period of about 2,300 years, from the Old Kingdom Period to the end of the Ptolemaic period, and were built in a variety of styles, including single shaft tombs, tombs with several shafts, and sloping corridors leading to burial shafts. One Old Kingdom tomb consists of a sloping shaft that leads to a false door inscribed with hieroglyphs, a scene depicting the owner of the tomb performing sacrifices, and others making offerings to the deceased. An entrance leads to a gallery with a burial shaft to one side. The tomb was later reused, Waziri added. Miniature pots used for funerary offerings were recovered from the tombs, in addition to small spherical vessels, small alabaster vessels, pieces of a round metal mirror, and human and animal bones. To read about recent finds from Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, go to "The Mummies Return."

Tuesday, May 11

Ancient Persephone Statue Repatriated to Libya

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, a sculpture seized by customs officers at London’s Heathrow Airport has been handed over to Libya by British officials. Researchers from the British Museum examined the sculpture and suggested it had been looted from a cemetery in the ancient city of Cyrene during a period of political upheaval in Libya in 2011. Dated to the second century B.C., the sculpture depicts a woman wearing snake bracelets and holding a small doll, and has been identified as the goddess Persephone, who was daughter of Demeter and wife of Hades, as she emerged from the underworld. The doll may represent a keepsake taken into the afterlife, while the snake bracelets have been associated with death and rebirth. “It is a beautiful, three-quarter-length statue, very well preserved with just a few fingers missing,” said curator Peter Higgs. To read about a cave in Turkey that in antiquity was believed to be an entrance to Hades, go to "Portals to the Underworld."

World War II Submarine Identified Near Malta

MSIDA, MALTA—Live Science reports that maritime archaeologist Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta and his colleagues have identified a wrecked submarine in more than 360 feet of water some six miles off Malta’s eastern coast as the HMS Urge. The vessel’s name was still visible on its conning tower, Gambin explained. A 3-D digital scan of the wreckage, he added, matches the recorded dimensions of the Urge. The submarine went missing in April 1942 after it crippled an Italian battleship and sank an Italian cruiser in the area, which was mined by German ships. The British Admiralty ordered the submarine to travel to safer waters in Egypt, but the vessel and the 44 people on board never arrived in Alexandria. Gambin said the inspection revealed damage to the bow likely caused by a German naval mine. The bow section broke off when the submarine hit the seafloor. For more on the underwater archaeology of World War II, go to "Scuttled but Not Forgotten."

Neanderthal Remains Discovered in Italy

ROME, ITALY—The Guardian reports that the remains of nine Neanderthals, including seven adult males, a female, and a child, have been discovered in Grotta Guattari, a cave near central Italy’s western coastline that was sealed in prehistory by a collapse. One of the sets of remains has been dated to between 90,000 and 100,000 years old, while the rest have been dated to between 50,000 and 68,000 years old. Mario Rolfo of Tor Vergata University said most of them had been killed by hyenas and eaten in their den. “Neanderthals were prey for these animals,” he explained. “Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals.” The bones of rhinoceroses, giant deer, horses, and hyenas were also recovered from the cave. Rolfo added that analysis of dental tartar indicates the Neanderthals ate a varied diet based on cereals. DNA studies of the well-preserved remains are being planned. For more on Neanderthal finds from Italian caves, go to "Around the World: Italy."

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