Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, February 22

Genetic Study Attempts to Find Origins of Modern Horses

PARIS, FRANCE—According to a report in The Independent, a genetic study of 88 ancient and modern horses revealed Mongolia’s Przewalksi’s horse to be descended from horses domesticated by the Botai people on the Central Asian steppes some 5,500 years ago. It had been previously thought that Przewalksi’s horses were truly wild creatures. Modern domestic horses, on the other hand, inherited only about three percent of their DNA from the animals bred by the Botai. “Our findings literally turn current population models of horse origins upside-down,” said molecular archaeologist Ludovic Orlando of the French National Center for Scientific Research. The study also revealed that ancient Botai horses boasted “leopard spots,” a trait caused by a gene that was also associated with night blindness. It was probably weeded out of the feral population that became Przewalksi’s horses by natural selection. For more, go to “The Story of the Horse.”

Neanderthals May Have Been Capable of Symbolic Thought

BORDEAUX, FRANCE—Science News reports that cave art in Spain has been tentatively dated to at least 64,800 years ago through analysis of uranium in the mineral deposits covering the painted areas. Archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux and his colleagues say the dates suggests the red horizontal and vertical lines and hand stencils were created by Neanderthals some 20,000 years before the arrival of modern humans in Europe. Possible jewelry made from eagle claws found in Croatia and pigment-stained seashells pierced with holes found in Spain have also been attributed to Neanderthals. “Neanderthal social life was as complex as that of [contemporaneous] humans in Africa,” said João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona. The scientists suggest the capacity for symbolic thinking could therefore have developed in a common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans some 500,000 years ago. For more on Neanderthals, go to “Early Man Cave.”

Possible Ancient Banquet Hall Uncovered in Central Japan

NARA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—A seventh-century banquet hall measuring more than 60 feet long has been unearthed in the historic town of Asuka, according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. The building was found near the site of the one of the country’s oldest Buddhist temples. The hall is thought to have been part of a complex described in an eighth-century account of banquets and sumo tournaments hosted by the imperial court for dignitaries visiting from the outskirts of the Asuka kingdom. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Large-Scale Study Examines Spread of Beaker Culture

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a report in The Guardian, an international team of more than 100 scientists sampled DNA obtained from more than 400 prehistoric skeletons in order to study the spread of Beaker culture some 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists have long wondered if the telltale bell-shaped pottery marked the spread of culture through trade and imitation, or if the pottery was spread by mass migrations. Ian Armit of the University of Bradford said that on the European continent, the DNA samples the team extracted did not closely match those from Beaker burials, so Beaker culture probably did not travel with Beaker genes. But in Britain, the DNA of the people buried with beakers was different from the DNA obtained from earlier Britons, who may have been dying out before the arrival of the Beaker people. The oldest-known beakers have been found on the Iberian Peninsula, but DNA from burials there did not match the DNA found in Central Europe. “This is the first clear example from ancient DNA that pots do not always go hand-in-hand with people,” said David Reich of Harvard Medical School. For more on the use of DNA in archaeological research, go to “A Viral Fingerprint.”

Wednesday, February 21

Engravings Spotted on Medieval Spindle Whorl

RZESZÓW, POLAND—Iwona Florkiewicz of the University of Rzeszów recently examined a spindle whorl unearthed more than 60 years ago in Czermno, a site in southeastern Poland, according to a report in Science in Poland. A spindle whorl adds weight to a spindle, prevents the thread from sliding off, and helps to maintain the spindle’s spin and control its speed. Florkiewicz said this whorl had been made of slate from what is now Ukraine. She also discovered that the whorl had been inscribed with Cyrillic letters. “Archaeologists probably did not expect spindle whorls to have inscriptions, so these objects were not analyzed in this respect,” she said. The letters spell the man’s name Hoten, and may have been a sign of ownership, or possible secondary use as an amulet. “The spindle whorl probably comes from the time when this area was a part of Kievan Rus,” she explained. “Remember that Czermno was a borderland town, where cultural influences from the east and the west mixed.” For more, go to “Off the Grid: Krakow, Poland.”

Ancient Egyptians May Have Surveyed on the Fall Equinox

CAIRO, EGYPT—The Great Pyramid of Khufu and the pyramid of Khafre at Giza, and the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, were all aligned with the cardinal points within one-fifteenth of one degree. According to a report in Live Science, engineer Glen Dash thinks Egyptian engineers may have accomplished this feat by employing a shadow cast by a rod, or gnomon, on the fall equinox, when the sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night are nearly equal. Dash experimented with this possible technique by surveying with a rod and shadows on the fall equinox in Connecticut, and found that the degree of error was similar to that found in the alignment of the Egyptian pyramids. The sun and stars, or a combination of methods, may also have been used by ancient Egyptian engineers, he notes. To read about Dash's previous research on the pyramids, go to “The Great Parallelogram.”

Early Roman Mosaic Flooring Uncovered in Bath

BATH, ENGLAND—The Bath Echo reports that a small section of mosaic flooring dating to the first century A.D. has been uncovered in the threshold of a room in the Roman bathing complex in Bath. The small, cream-colored tiles were made from local stone. “It shows that right from its inception the Roman Baths was furnished with all the trappings of a very fine establishment,” said Stephen Clews, manager of the Roman Baths. The flooring was discovered during an excavation that will extend the area of the site that is open to the public. For more on Roman England, go to “Tablet Time.”

Tuesday, February 20

Roman Boxing Gloves Discovered at Vindolanda

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that two leather boxing gloves have been unearthed at Vindolanda, a Roman fort located in northern England, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Andrew Birley, director of excavations at Vindolanda, said Roman boxing gloves have been seen on statues and sculptures, but he thinks these gloves may be the only surviving examples from the period. The two gloves are thought to have been used for sparring, but were probably not a matched pair. They are of different sizes, and the smaller one contains a coil of hard, twisted leather, while the larger was filled with natural material that may have served as a kind of shock absorber. Gloves used in Roman boxing competitions are thought to have had metal inserts. For more on discoveries at Vindolanda, go to “Life on the Frontier.”

Scientists Recover Ancient Taino DNA

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A genetic study suggests at least one modern Caribbean population, on Puerto Rico, could be linked to the Taino, an ancient indigenous Caribbean group, according to a report in Science Magazine. Although oral history has long held that modern island populations are descended from indigenous people, it had previously been believed that all traces of the Taino were wiped out within 30 years of the arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean. Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues were able to extract DNA for the study from a 1,000-year-old tooth recovered from a woman’s skeleton found in a cave on the hot, humid island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Pre-contact artifacts were found at the site as well. Comparison of the woman’s genome with those of other Native American groups revealed she was related to people who lived in northern South America and spoke Arawakan languages. Archaeologists have noted similarities between the ceramics and tools found at Taino sites and those in northern South America. And, the scientists say the archaeological and genetic evidence indicates the Taino traveled among the Caribbean islands frequently. “It looks like an interconnected network of people exchanging goods, services, and genes,” explained bioarchaeologist William Schaffer of Phoenix College. For more on archaeology of the Caribbean, go to “Spiritual Meeting Ground.”

Ancient Statue Fragments Uncovered in Sudan

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, additional pieces of a 2,600-year-old statue have been discovered in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun at the site of Dangeil, which is located along the Nile River in Sudan. Inscriptions written in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the newly uncovered pieces of sculpture have allowed archaeologists to identify the statue as depicting Aspelta, who ruled Kush between 593 and 568 B.C. The inscription describes Aspelta as beloved of the Egyptian sun god, and king of Upper and Lower Egypt, even though one of Aspelta’s predecessors had lost control of the country to the north some 100 years earlier. Julie Anderson, an assistant keeper at the British Museum, said Sudan’s kings may have kept the title of ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt “as general assertions of authority using the traditional titles, and not a claim to Egypt.” Based upon the pieces of Aspelta’s statue that have been found to date, the researchers estimate it stood approximately half life-size. The excavation is a project of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan, in cooperation with the British Museum and is sponsored by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. To read in-depth about the temple at Dangeil, go to “The Cult of Amun.”