Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, August 11

Archaeologists Confirm Viking Fortress

AARHUS, DENMARK—Archaeologists in Denmark have used advanced remote-sensing technology to confirm the existence of a tenth-century Viking ring fortress, reports the International Business Times. While the site had been tentatively identified since the 1970s as a fortress of the Trelleborg type (characterized by a telltale circular shape and precise internal structure), only recently has technology such as LiDAR been available that allows researchers to measure subtle differences in the ground of long-overgrown earthworks. There have only been five confirmed Trelleborg fortresses discovered in Denmark to date and, at 500 feet in diameter, the Borgring fortress is the first of its kind to be found in 60 years. The Trelleborg fortresses appear to have been built between 975 and 980 during the reign of King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who may have sought to centralize a previously factional alliance of Viking leaders in the face of threats from the Holy Roman Empire. To read more about Harald Bluetooth, go to “Bluetooth's Fortress.”

Excavations Uncover Zanzibar's Colonial History

ZANZIBAR TOWN, ZANZIBAR—According to a report in United Arab Emirates-based The National, a team of researchers led by archaeologist Mark Horton from the University of Bristol has uncovered the foundations of two early-17th-century Portuguese churches on the island of Zanzibar, which lies off the coast of Tanzania. Horton and his colleagues, including archaeologists from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, made the discovery while excavating an 18th-century Arab fort in Stone Town, the oldest quarter of the island's main city, Zanzibar Town. In typical fashion for settlements that have weathered multiple periods of rule by successive colonial powers, the dig at Stone Town has revealed layers of occupation, including that of the Portuguese, who effectively controlled the East African coast between 1500 and 1698, when they ceded Fort Jesus in Mombasa to Omani Arabs. In addition to the church foundations, the team has also found several Christian burials, including that of a woman—possibly a nun—with a sacred heart medallion around her neck. According to Horton, while historians have long held that Stone Town is only a few centuries old, the team has identified archaeological deposits that could extend back a thousand years. To read more about archaeology in East Africa, go to "Stone Towns of the Swahili Coast." 

Medieval Parchment DNA and Proteins Studied

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Research on the proteins and DNA held in medieval parchment manuscripts is providing new insights into how the manuscripts were made and used, according to a report from New Scientist. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University of York, and Trinity College Dublin studied manuscripts including the York Gospels, which were written around A.D. 1000. Since conventional methods of extracting DNA from the manuscripts were deemed too invasive, the researchers used rubbings from the parchment that are removed as part of routine cleaning and typically discarded. The proteins found in the rubbings indicated that the York Gospels were primarily made from cattle, while some pages were made from sheepskin. A Gospel of Luke dating to the twelfth century and owned by Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College was found to have been made with skins of calves, sheep, goat, and two different species of deer. DNA from the rubbings suggests that most of the animals used to make the parchment were female. In addition, pages of manuscripts containing clerical oaths that would have been touched or kissed regularly were found to contain higher levels of human DNA. “You can even see the use to which the text is being put,” said Matthew Collins of the University of Copenhagen, “which is kind of amazing.” For more on manuscripts, go to “Scroll Search.”

Iron Age Statue Unearthed in Turkey

TAYINAT, TURKEY—The International Business Times reports that archaeologists have unearthed a large fragment of an Iron Age statue in eastern Turkey. Discovered near the gate to the citadel of the Neo-Hittite capital of Kunulua, the statue depicts a woman with curls in her hair, and would have once stood between 13 and 16 feet high. The team, led by University of Toronto archaeologist Timothy Harrison, believes that the monument dates to the early ninth century B.C. and probably was erected to honor an important noblewoman. “The discovery of this statue raises the possibility that women played a more prominent role in the political and religious lives of these early Iron Age communities than the existing historical record might suggest,” says Harrison. The team's recovery of smaller fragments of the statue might allow it to reconstruct the face, which could aid in the identification of the woman it depicts. To read more about artifacts from this period, go to “Artifact: Iron Age Figurines.”

Thursday, August 10

Scientists Examine England’s Engraved Human Bones

LONDON, ENGLAND—Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum says human remains uncovered in southwestern England’s Gough’s Cave bear signs of cannibalism, such as butchering marks and tooth imprints. The New York Times reports that zigzag patterns cut into the 15,000-year-old bones indicate the practice may have been ritualistic at times. Similar zigzag patterns have been found in France on animal bones dating to the same period. Bello and her colleagues compared the zigzag marks from Gough’s Cave to marks on other human and animal bones in the cave and other archaeological sites. They found that the zigzag cuts were deeper, wider, and more visible than most butchering marks. Such repeated, impractical cuts were usually avoided by butchers who were just interested in a meal, Bello thinks, because they can blunt a stone blade. Bello speculates that cannibalism was practiced as a way to dispose of, or perhaps even honor, the body after a person died from natural causes. For more, go to “Colonial Cannibalism.

Chaco Canyon Petroglyph May Depict Solar Eclipse

BOULDER, COLORADO—A 900-year-old petroglyph on a free-standing rock in Chaco Canyon could depict the solar eclipse that occurred over New Mexico on July 11, 1097, according to a report in Newsweek. J. McKim Malville of the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the carving is made up of an image that looks like the sun’s outer atmosphere—a circle surrounded by “tangled, looped protrusions” on its edges. Human figures are also shown engaged in different activities. Malville and José Vaquero of Spain’s University of Extremadura examined the amount of carbon in ancient tree rings, ancient observations of sunspots recorded by Chinese astronomers, and historic data on the northern lights compiled by northern Europeans. They determined that at the time of the New Mexico eclipse the sun was in a period of very high solar activity. The loops in the petroglyph could depict coronal mass ejections, or eruptions of tons of fast-moving plasma. Other images on the rock, known as Piedra del Sol, were used to mark the June solstice and probably served other ceremonial functions. To read about another discovery at Chaco Canyon, go to “Early Parrots in the Southwest.”

13-Million-Year-Old Skull May Represent Human Ancestor

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Science Magazine reports that an almost complete skull of an infant Miocene ape has been discovered sticking up out of the ground in Kenya’s Turkana Basin. The baseball-sized skull, which has been dated to 13 million years ago, could help scientists learn more about the last common ancestor of modern apes and humans, which lived an estimated seven million years ago. The team of researchers, led by Isaiah Nengo of Se Anza College and the Turkana Basin Institute, which is affiliated with Stony Brook University, says the infant’s teeth resemble those of other fossil primates from the genus Nyanzapithecus, but its molars are much larger, so it has been classified as a new species, N. alesi, after the Turkana word for “ancestor.” X-ray images produced at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, revealed growth lines on un-erupted adult teeth in the skull. The lines suggest that Alesi, as the creature has been nicknamed, was about 16 months old at the time of death. The X-rays also brought Alesi’s boney ear tubes to light. These structures have helped to classify nyanzapithecines as apes, and as ancestral to modern humans and apes. All previous nyanzapithecines species have only been represented by teeth in the fossil record. For more, go to “No Changeups on the Savannah.”

Stone Vessel Workshop Discovered in Galilee

REINA, ISRAEL—Arutz Sheva reports that a second workshop where vessels were carved from chalkstone has been discovered in Lower Galilee. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists say they have uncovered thousands of chalkstone cores and fragments of stone mugs and bowls in the small cave. Excavation director Yonatan Adler explained that according to ancient Jewish ritual law, vessels made of pottery are easily made impure and must be broken. Tableware made from stone vessels, however, was not thought to become ritually impure. The discovery of another chalkstone workshop in Galilee suggests that residents observed Jewish purity laws. The excavation could help scholars determine how long these laws continued to be observed among the Jews of Galilee during the Roman period. To read about another recent discovery in Israel, go to “Sun and Moon.”

Wednesday, August 09

Human Tooth Hints at Early Migration Out of Africa

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Kira Westaway of Macquarie University and her colleagues have found evidence of the presence of Homo sapiens on the Indonesian island of Sumatra dated to between 63,000 and 73,000 years ago, according to a report in New Scientist. “This is a significant finding because it supports emerging ideas that modern humans left Africa and reached Australia much earlier than we thought,” said Michelle Langley of Griffith University. The evidence came in the form of two teeth, discovered by Dutch archaeologist Eugene Dubois in a cave on Sumatra in the late nineteenth century. The researchers confirmed the teeth belonged to Homo sapiens by comparing them to orangutan fossils found near the cave, and then dated them with electron spin resonance dating. Scientists could now look for traces of early human habitation in the rainforest, such as evidence of cooking and stone tool use. But, Langley notes, “It’s possible they were just passing through.” To read about another major discovery in Indonesia, go to “The First Artists.”

Researchers Return to Early Polynesian Site in New Zealand

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND—A team of archaeologists has returned to an archaeological site near the northern tip of New Zealand that could date to the arrival of the first Polynesians in the area, some 700 years ago. Live Science reports that archaeologists first investigated the site, located on Moturua Island, in 1981. The current team members are also studying the artifacts recovered during that dig. The items include a shell pendant, dog remains, bone fish hooks, shell fragments, and animal bones found in a stone-lined underground oven, or hangi. Recent finds from the site include the cooked remains of seals, shellfish, and moa, a flightless bird thought to have been driven to extinction by New Zealand’s first human hunters. Andrew Blanshard of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation said the recent research indicates the shell pendant was made from a species of pearl oyster native to tropical waters, not the cold waters of New Zealand. He thinks it may have been brought from another part of Polynesia. “But at this stage, it’s still very much a wish, rather than something we can prove,” he said. To read more about early Polynesian migration, go to "Inside Kauai's Past."

Tracking Ancestral Puebloans Through Turkey DNA

NORMAN, OKLAHOMA—Where did the Ancestral Puebloans go when they left Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde some 800 years ago? According to a report in Science Magazine, scientists led by molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp of the University of Oklahoma are attempting to track the Ancestral Puebloans through DNA samples taken from the remains of their domesticated animals. The researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA from turkey bones found at archaeological sites near Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, and compared it to genetic material obtained from turkey remains in the northern Rio Grande region, where the Ancestral Puebloans are long thought to have migrated and joined the ancestors of the Tewa Pueblo. The study suggests that after the year 1280, the previously unrelated groups of turkeys shared clusters of genes. “The people who collected these turkey bones had no idea that one day we would get DNA out of them and use them to answer questions about ancient human migration,” said team member Scott Ortman of the University of Colorado, Boulder. To read about the archaeology of the Puebloan peoples, go to "The First American Revolution."

Bone Ornaments Discovered in Southern India

HYDERABAD, INDIA—One India reports that a collection of 50 carved bone ornaments has been found southern India. The nearly identical, rhombus-shaped ornaments are decorated with carved circular indentations. Holes in the middle suggest they may have been worn as jewelry. “There was a certain sense of calculation, certain technology, aestheticism involved,” commented N.R. Visalatchy, an official in the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Telangana. Further testing will help date the ornaments, which are estimated to have been made between 4,000 and 1,500 years ago. To read more about archaeology in India, go to "Exploring Hampi."