Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, February 06

Frescoed Tomb With Drainage System Found in China

SHENYANG, CHINA—Xinhua reports that a 1,000-year-old frescoed tomb equipped with a drainage system has been discovered in northeast China. The tomb’s walls had been painted with images of vehicles, horses, and camels multiple times during the late Liao Dynasty, which ruled from A.D. 907 to 1125. Si Weiwei of Liaoning Province’s Cultural Relics and Archaeological Institute thinks the tomb may have been constructed before the death of its owner, and then its frescoes repainted at the time of his or her death. The second touch-up may have taken place at the death of his or her spouse. The tomb’s drainage system consists of ditches filled with stones. “The function of those stone balls is to drain away water, on the one hand, and also to prevent tomb raiders, on the other hand,” Si explained. To read about another tomb recently discovered in China, go to “Underground Party.”

Partially Digested Neanderthal Teeth Identified

PARIS, FRANCE—Live Science reports that Bruno Maureille of France’s National Center for Scientific Research led a team that re-examined two unusual teeth discovered in cave in western France in the late twentieth century. The bones of some 17,000 butchered reindeer bones, as well as bones of horses and bison have also been found at the hunting campsite, known as Marillac, along with Neanderthal bones bearing butchery marks. The teeth in the study are thought to have been consumed and regurgitated by a cave hyena some 65,000 years ago. Previous analysis suggested the teeth had belonged to cattle or deer, but the new study indicates they belonged to a Neanderthal, and had been altered by the carnivore’s digestive juices. “We don’t know exactly what was going on,” said Alan Mann, a Princeton University professor emeritus, “but [the Neanderthals] must have left skulls or parts of the face there, because cave hyenas came in and ate them.” For more, go to “Early Man Cave.”

Neanderthals May Have Used Fire to Make Tools

TUSCANY, ITALY—Science Magazine reports that 58 nearly identical charred wood objects have been found at the site of Poggetti Vecchi, in an area where Neanderthal artifacts have been found in the past. The items are thought to be digging sticks, which are used by modern-day hunter-gatherers to uncover roots and tubers, and to hunt small, burrowing animals. They can also serve as weapons when needed. The artifacts are about three feet long, rounded on one end, and sharpened on the other, and have been dated to some 171,000 years ago, when Neanderthals lived in the region. The tips of the sticks had been charred, perhaps as a way to remove the bark from the various hard woods, including boxwood, oak, ash, and juniper. The pattern of char is similar on a number of the sticks, which suggests it was intentional. The char marks could also be the earliest-known use of fire by Neanderthals. Cut marks on the shafts of the sticks suggest they had been shaped with stone tools. Some 200 stone tools were also found at the site, along with the fossilized remains of the extinct straight-tusked elephant. For more, go to “A Traditional Neanderthal Home.”

Monday, February 05

Study Re-creates 8,000-Year-Old Projectiles

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—According to a report in The Times of London, researchers in Alaska have reconstructed weapons used by Stone Age hunters some 8,000 years ago. Taking cues from projectile points found by archaeologists, graduate student Janice Wood and her colleague Ben Fitzhugh have recreated various kinds of arrowheads from carved caribou antler and obsidian. Wood, who tested the tips by firing them into blocks of ballistic gelatin, a substance used to simulate flesh in firearms tests, speculates that each point may have been designed specifically for particular prey, and suggests these ancient barbs were likely even more effective than the broadhead arrows used by modern hunters. To read more about prehistoric hunters in the Americas, go to “Where the Ice Age Caribou Ranged.”

Old Kingdom Priestess Tomb Discovered in Egypt

CARIO, EGYPT—The BBC reports that archaeologists in Egypt have discovered a 4,400-year-old tomb near the Giza pyramids that contains rare wall paintings and is believed to belong to a high-ranking priestess named Hetpet. According to researchers from Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, Hetpet was a preistess for Hathor, a godess associated with fertility, motherhood, and love, and is thought to have been closely connected to the royal family of the Old Kingdom's Fifth Dynasty, around 2400 B.C. To read more about powerful women in Egypt's Old Kingdom period, go to “Queen of the Old Kingdom.

Dice Have Grown More Fair Over Time

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—A survey of cube-shaped dice dating back to the Roman era finds that they were not designed to have an equal chance of landing on different numbers until the Renaissance, according to a report from Science Alert. Researchers based their analysis on 110 different dice, and suggest that the trend toward “fair” dice coincided with the rise of scientific thinking. “People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability, and we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers," said Jelmer Eerkens of the University of California, Davis. “We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games.” Eerkens and colleagues found that Roman-era dice each had a slightly different shape, and many were visibly lopsided. It is possible that those using the dice believed that providence—not the shapes of the dice—determined the results of rolls. Dice dating to the Middle Ages are more regular in shape, but have their pips arranged in what is known as the “primes” configuration, popular in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in which opposite sides add up to prime numbers—1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6. Around 1450, dice shifted to the “sevens” configuration used today, in which opposite sides add up to seven: 1 opposite 6, 2 opposite 5, and 3 opposite 4. For more, go to “Game of Diplomacy.”

Chinese Mummies Unearthed in Peru

LIMA, PERU—CBC reports that the natural mummies of three nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants to Peru have been discovered near Lima. Workers installing gas pipelines accidentally unearthed wooden coffins holding the mummies, who likely belonged to first generation Chinese immigrants who came to Peru to work in the country’s agricultural sector. A number of Chinese artifacts were found inside the coffins and archaeologists say they expect to find more coffins at the site in the near future. To read in-depth about the archaeology of Chinese settlements in the New World, go to “America’s Chinatowns.” 

Friday, February 02

Unusual 2,400-Year-Old Burial Unearthed in Mexico City

  MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—According to a Live Science report, archaeologists associated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History unearthed a 2,400-year-old burial while investigating the ancient settlement of Tlalpan, which is located in southern Mexico City. The circular burial is unusual because it contains the remains of men, women, and children, whose bodies had been interlocked in a spiral shape. The grave also held stones and ceramic jars and bowls. The condition of the skeletons suggests the skulls of two of the individuals had been modified by binding during childhood, and the teeth of some of the others had been filed into different shapes. Jimena Rivera, head of the excavation, suggests the tableau and the age range of the deceased could have been intended to symbolize the stages of life. For more, go to “Aztec Warrior Wolf.”

Lidar Survey Reveals Thousands of Maya Structures

  EL PETÉN, GUATEMALA—Some 60,000 Maya structures have been discovered in the dense forests of northern Guatemala by a consortium of scholars led by the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, according to a Live Science report. Lidar, or “light detection and ranging” technology, beams laser pulses at the ground from airplanes and measures the wavelengths of light that bounce back, creating an accurate 3-D map of the topography. Archaeologist Tom Garrison of Ithaca College said most of the structures detected during the survey are probably stone platforms that supported pole-and-thatch dwellings. Some of those architectural mounds could be pyramids and defensive structures, however. The scientists also detected roads that may have served as causeways during the rainy season, or as platforms for processions. David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin commented that knowing where the Maya chose not to build and live could also offer information about how they farmed and used water. “It’s going to change our views of population and just on how the Maya lived on that landscape,” he said. For more, go to “Letter From Guatemala: Maya Metropolis.”

New Dates Obtained for Possible Viking Mass Grave in England

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—The International Business Times reports that new radiocarbon dates have been obtained for the human remains discovered some 40 years ago in a mass grave at a seventh-century church in Repton. Historic records indicate that a Viking army invaded England’s four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in A.D. 865, and spent the 873–874 winter in Repton. The remains of hundreds of dead, mostly males between the ages of 18 and 45 who had suffered violent injuries, had initially been thought to be members of this Great Viking Army, but radiocarbon dating had indicated some of the bones were too old for that to be the case. Cat Jarman of the University of Bristol says the Vikings’ seafood-rich diet could have thrown off the first radiocarbon tests. The new dates, which adjust for the older carbon ingested with marine foods, place all of the remains in the ninth century A.D. Jarman said the new dates don’t prove the bones belonged to the Vikings, but they do make it far more likely. For more, go to “Hoards of the Vikings.”

Prehistoric Enclosure Found Near Stonehenge

LARKHILL, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, a team led by Si Cleggett of Wessex Archaeology has uncovered a series of nine post holes in a causewayed enclosure they say matches the orientation of the circle at Stonehenge. The site is located a short walk from Stonehenge, and dates to between 3750 and 3650 B.C., or about 600 years before a circular ditch and timber posts were first installed at the Stonehenge site. Cleggett suggests the people who built the enclosure at Larkhill may have been the architects of the Stonehenge landscape. “That nine-post alignment could be an early blueprint for the laying out of the stones at Stonehenge,” he said. For more, go to “The Square Inside Avebury’s Circles.”