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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 6

New Strain of Plague Found in Neolithic Remains in Sweden

MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Live Science reports that a new strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, has been identified in human remains from a Neolithic tomb in Sweden by a team of researchers led by biologist Nicolás Rascovan of Aix-Marseille University. The bacterial DNA came from the dental pulp of a 20-year-old woman who is thought to have died about 4,900 years ago from the deadly pneumonic form of the disease. Based upon comparisons with other strains of Yersinia pestis, Rascovan and his colleagues suggest this one diverged about 5,700 years ago, making it the oldest known strain of plague. It had been previously thought that plague first traveled to Europe from the Eurasian steppe as people migrated west and replaced European farmers, but the age of the plague strain found in Sweden suggests that European farmers may have already suffered from the infection and been in decline when the Eurasians arrived. Karl-Göran Sjögren of the University of Gothenburg said the presence of the plague in Sweden could reflect the growth of bigger settlements and poor sanitary conditions, use of wheeled transport, and increased contact among groups of people through trading networks in the Neolithic world, all of which may have helped spread the pathogens. The scientists have not yet found direct evidence of plague in any of these large Neolithic settlements, however. For more, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Mammoth Tusk “Tiara” Discovered in Denisova Cave

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—According to a report in The Siberian Times, archaeologists have found a 50,000-year-old piece of worked woolly mammoth tusk in the southern gallery of Denisova Cave. Alexander Fedorchenko of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography suggests the curved ivory object is a fragment of an ornament whose large size indicates it was worn by a Denisovan man. A cord would have been threaded through holes in either end of the piece and then tied around the wearer's head in order to keep his hair out of his eyes. There is evident wear and tear on the artifact, which was eventually discarded. Such ivory “tiaras,” as they are called, have been found in other parts of Siberia, but those decorated items were created between 20,000 and 28,000 years ago by modern humans. The Densiovan tiara suggests the tradition could be older than previously thought. For more, go to “Denisovan DNA.”

Gold Coin Discovered in Slovenia

ČRNOMELJ, SLOVENIA—STA reports that archaeologists excavating one of 15 Celtic burials at the Pezdirčeva Njiva site, which is located in southeastern Slovenia, discovered a bronze belt adorned with a gold coin dating to the third century B.C. The coin bears images of the goddesses Nike and Athena and is thought to be a copy of a Greek coin known as an Alexander the Great stater. “A golden coin as such is a rare find in Slovenia,” said Lucija Grahek of the Academy of Sciences and Arts. “As far as I know, this is the third golden coin found at Slovenian sites, and as it seems, the oldest.” Some organic material making up the belt was also preserved. To read about another discovery in Slovenia, go to “Fixing Ancient Toothaches.”

Wednesday, December 5

Possible Remains of Extinct “Hobby Horses” Uncovered in Ireland

COUNTY KILDARE, IRELAND—The Leinster Leader reports that traces of an Anglo-Norman medieval village and what may have been a large horse-breeding farm were discovered in the mid-east region of Ireland ahead of roadway construction. Scholars knew of the village from historic sources, but its exact location had been lost. Test excavations in the settlement revealed a high number of horse remains. Some of the horse bones were smaller and lighter than the others, and may represent animals that had been bred for use in war by light cavalry called hobelars. Their agile mounts, bred in Ireland and exported to England and Scotland, came to be known as hobby horses. The breed is now extinct. Skeletal remains of cattle, sheep, and pigs were also found, in addition to the bones of dogs, cats, deer, pheasants, crows, geese, ducks, and squirrels. For more on medieval Irealnd, go to “The Vikings in Ireland.”

3,000-Year-Old Leather Bag Full of Jewelry Found in Slovakia

POPRAD, SLOVAKIA—An excavation in northern Slovakia has uncovered Bronze Age jewelry, a spur, a needle, coins, and horseshoes, according to a report in The Slovak Spectator. Archaeologist Matúš Hudák of the Spiš Museum said the jewelry includes bronze spirals and tin funnel-shaped hangers that were buried some 3,000 years ago in a leather bag, the top of which was decorated with three bronze disks. “The remains of leather straps were also preserved inside of [the] spirals and hangers,” explained archaeologist Mária Hudákova. “We saw at the beginning that close to the jewelry there was a darker soil that indicated the possible decomposition of organic material.” To read about the discovery of a range of items dating to the second to fifth century A.D. in Slovakia, go to “World Roundup.”

Hundreds of Cannonballs Unearthed in Sweden

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—According to a report in The Local, hundreds of seventeenth-century cannonballs in various sizes have been found in central Stockholm, in an area where iron was once produced in large quantities for export. Grenades, hand grenades, and parts of cannons were also uncovered. Archaeologists led by Michel Carlsson think the cannonballs may have been dumped when the city grew and its fortifications were moved in the early seventeenth century, or when the city’s iron-weighing facilities were moved in the 1660s. “One question we are considering and have not yet found the answer to is why the cannonballs were not saved—if nothing else than for the sake of the metal value,” Carlsson said. To read about a sixteenth-century Swedish warship that sank in the Baltic Sea, go to “Mars Explored.”

Tuesday, December 4

Skeletons Reveal Hardships of London’s Industrial Poor

LONDON, ENGLAND—Excavation of an early nineteenth-century cemetery in southwest London has revealed evidence that the population endured disease, deformities, malnutrition, violence, dangerous working conditions, and pollution, according to a report in The Guardian. Osteoarchaeologist Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy of Wessex Archaeology said the people who were buried in the cemetery at the church of St. George the Martyr led “a life of drudgery and just-about surviving.” The bones of one of the women, she explained, showed that she suffered from congenital syphilis. Her shoulders and upper arms showed signs of strenuous work, her nose was broken, and a wound in her skull made with a thin blade is thought to have been fatal. A flattened nose, a depression in his left brow, and battered knuckles suggest that one man, who also suffered from syphilis, had “several violent altercations,” Dinwiddy said. Many of the graves in the cemetery contained the remains of children under the age of 12, she added. For more on discoveries in London dating to the nineteenth century, go to “A Cornucopia of Condiments.”

Skeleton Wearing Leather Boots Recovered From River Thames

LONDON, ENGLAND—Londonist reports that a 500-year-old male skeleton still wearing a pair of thigh-high leather boots has been discovered in the mud of the River Thames in south London. The man is unlikely to have been buried in the river wearing such valuable footwear, according to Beth Richardson of MOLA Headland. She thinks he may have died while working as a fisherman, a sailor, or someone who scavenged for items of value in the river mud. Examination of the bones indicates he was under the age of 35 at the time of death. His teeth bear grooves worn from repetitive action, perhaps passing a rope between them, and his boots were equipped with layers of soles and stuffed with moss for protection in rough terrain. For more on archaeology in London, go to “Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”

Technology Detects Name “Pontius Pilate” on Seal Ring

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK—According to a New York Times report, the name “Pilate” has been found inscribed on a simple ring that was made of copper alloy some 2,000 years ago and unearthed at the ancient fortress and palace of Herodium in the 1960s. Pieces of glass and pottery, arrowheads, and coins were also recovered from the room where the ring was discovered. Herodium Expedition researchers detected the inscription, written in Greek letters set around an image of a wine vessel, on the piece of jewelry using advanced photographic techniques. Pontius Pilate, credited in the Christian New Testament with presiding over a trial of Jesus Christ, was governor of the province of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. Archaeologist Roi Porat of the Hebrew University and his colleagues said that although the name Pilate was not a common one at the time, they think it is unlikely that such a high-ranking official would have worn such a simple seal ring. For more on excavations at Herodium, go to “Autumn of the Master Builder.”