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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, May 15

Footprints in Saudi Arabia Dated to 85,000 Years Ago

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA—Gulf News reports that footprints made by several adults have been found by an international team of researchers in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Tabuk region, and dated to at least 85,000 years ago. The fossil of an adult human finger dated to about 90,000 years ago was also recently discovered in the region. Although the area is now a desert, the footprints were made on the banks of an ancient freshwater lake bed, and suggest that the hunter-gatherers may have been fishing. The age of the footprints also supports the idea that modern humans may have left Africa earlier than previously thought, and traveled through Sinai. To read about another recent discovery in Saudia Arabia, go to “Hot Property.”

Study Suggests Homo naledi Had a Small, Powerful Brain

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—According to a report in The Independent, a new study suggests that Homo naledi, a hominin that lived between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, may have been highly intelligent. Its fossils, discovered in a cave in South Africa in 2015, exhibit a mix of primitive and advanced characteristics, including a small brain about the size of an orange, hands that may have been able to make tools, and small feet. In addition, the fossils were recovered from a hard-to-reach cave chamber, which suggests Homo naledi may have engaged in complex behaviors such as deliberate disposal of the dead. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand and Ralph Holloway of Columbia University pieced together Homo naledi skull fragments and created a digital reconstruction of skull interiors, in order to learn more about the creatures’ brains. The scans showed complexity in areas of the Homo naledi brains linked to emotions in modern humans, and a large frontal lobe, an area associated with language. “Here we have a violation of that sacred cow—the idea there was this link between ever-increasing brain size paralleled with ever-increasing complexity,” Berger said. To read about the discovery of Homo naledi fossils, go to “A New Human Relative.”

Triumphal Arch Uncovered in Bulgaria

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the foundations of a massive, first-century A.D. triumphal arch have been uncovered in the ancient city of Philipopolis. The bases of the structure were discovered on either side of a Roman road measuring about 23 feet wide, near an inscription glorifying Roman Emperor Diocletian that dates to A.D. 303. So far, the excavation team, led by Elena Bozhinova of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, and Kamen Stanev of the Cyril and Methodius Scientific Center, has uncovered one side of the structure to a depth of about six feet. “The building material is sandstone because at the time the Romans had not started to process the local syenite,” Bozhinova said. Large holes in the blocks held cramp irons covered in lead that held the stones together. Architectural fragments recovered earlier in the dig are now thought to be part of the arch’s upper elements. The arch is thought to have collapsed during an earthquake, and its large stone blocks reused in a building set in the middle of the Roman road. Bozhinova said the remains of this arch are in better condition than the arch built at the ancient city’s Eastern Gate. To read about another discovery in Bulgaria, go to “Thracian Treasure Chest.”

Roman Army Fittings Found in Poland

KUJAWY, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that fragments of equestrian gear and Roman soldiers’ uniforms have been discovered in north-central Poland, outside the borders of the Roman Empire. Bartosz Kontny of the University of Warsaw said the fittings had been made in the shapes of male and female genitalia. “These amulets were believed to ensure happiness and protect against evil forces,” he said. One artifact, made of gold-plated copper, would have been worn on a hip belt. It depicts the spear of a beneficiarius, a high-ranking army officer, as a symbol of his power. Similar artifacts have been found in central Germany, where the Roman army is known to have been. Kontny thinks the soldiers may have been in Poland to protect the amber trade. “The Romans valued this material,” he said. The Romans may have also ventured into Poland from Germany while recruiting soldiers to assist the Vandals in their fight against the Suebi. “According to the records of the Roman historian Cassius Dion, the Emperor Domitian sent a hundred riders to help them,” Kontny said. “It is possible that some of the objects we discovered were parts of equipment of one of those riders.” To read about evidence of a Roman military camp found in Germany, go to “Caesar’s Gallic Outpost.”

Monday, May 14

Ancient Greek Artifacts Uncovered in Slovakia

NITRA, SLOVAKIA—The Slovak Spectator reports that bronze pieces of a Greek warrior’s breastplate have been unearthed near an ancient Celtic fortified settlement in western Slovakia. Regine Thomas of Cologne University digitized and analyzed the pieces, and determined they were once part of a relief that depicted the mythical battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. The pieces are thought to have been made in southern Italy in the middle of the fourth century B.C. “It is the oldest original Greek art relic in the area of Slovakia,” said Karol Pieta of the Slovak Archaeological Institute. He thinks the bronze artifacts may have traveled with Celtic warriors, who could have plundered them from the Greeks early in the third century B.C. The spot where the breastplate pieces were found is said to have been used by the Celts for ritual sacrifices. Archaeologists uncovered a sacrificial hole containing burned human and animal bones, bracelets made of blue glass, a spur, and a lot of pottery fragments. The Celts are thought to have thrown their beverage containers into a bonfire after sacrificial feasts. To read about a Celtic burial in France, go to “Tomb of a Highborn Celt.”

Peach Pits May Date to Reign of Japan’s Queen Himiko

NARA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—Peach pits unearthed at the Makimuku archaeological site in western Japan have been radiocarbon dated to between 135 and 230 A.D., according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. Some researchers think the dates suggest the nearly 3,000 peach pits, baskets, pots, plants, and animal bones found in a pit may have been used in rituals by the people of the Yamataikoku kingdom, which was ruled by Queen Himiko, who died in A.D. 248. “The dates derived by scientific analysis fell into the range we expected,” said Kaoru Terasawa of the Research Center of the Makimukugaku. “Along with the archaeological analysis based on the age of potteries, the age of the large building was verified to be from the first half of the third century.” Other scholars think the kingdom, which was mentioned in an ancient history of China, was not located in Nara Prefecture, on the island of Honshu, but to the south, on the island of Kyushu. “It is still not definitely certain whether the carbon dating data actually indicates the age of the building itself,” countered archaeologist Chuhei Takashima of Saga Women’s Junior College. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Iraq’s Ancient City of Mardaman Identified

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Live Science reports that a site in northern Iraq has been identified as containing the ruins of the lost city of Mardaman. Philologist Betina Faist of the University of Heidelberg found the city’s name in the texts of 92 cuneiform tablets that were discovered in a pottery vessel by a team of archaeologists from the University of Tübingen, who started excavating the site in 2013. The tablets date to about 1250 B.C., when the city was part of the Assyrian Empire and strategically positioned on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Syria. Peter Pfälzner of the University of Tübingen suggests the tablets may have been buried at the palace site around the time the building was destroyed, since the jar was covered with a thick layer of clay that protected and preserved the tablets. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

Greek Inscriptions Found at Roman-Era Temple in Egypt

AL-HAG ALI, EGYPT—According to an Associated Press report, a temple built during the reign of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius in the second century A.D. has been discovered in Egypt’s western desert. The excavation team has uncovered the foundations of a large, limestone building, and a long piece of limestone that had been inscribed in Greek and decorated with an image of the sun disc surrounded by cobras. The painting is thought to have been part of the entrance to the temple. To read about a recent reanalysis of mummies found in Egypt, go to “We Are Family.”

Friday, May 11

Leprosy May Have Originated in Europe

JENA, GERMANY—The Guardian reports that leprosy may have originated in Europe, and not in Asia, as had been previously thought. An international team of researchers led by Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History sampled about 90 different skeletons bearing the telltale deformations of leprosy. The skeletons were unearthed in Europe, and have been dated to between A.D. 400 and 1400. From the bones, the scientists reconstructed ten new genomes of medieval Mycobacterium leprae, in addition to the one or two strains already known to have been circulating in medieval Europe. “This latest research shows all the strains of the leprosy bacterium were in fact present in medieval Europe, which strongly suggests leprosy originated much closer to home, possibly in the far southeast of Europe, or western Asia,” said Helen Donoghue of University College London. The oldest strain was detected in a skeleton found in Great Chesterford, Essex, in southeast England, which has been dated to between A.D. 415 and 545. This is the same strain found in modern-day red squirrels, and may have been introduced to Britain through the ancient squirrel fur trade. The scientists will continue to search for the disease in even older human remains. For more, go to “Diagnosis of Ancient Illness.”

Genetic Study Estimates Number of First New World Migrants

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—According to a Live Science report, a new genetic study conducted by an international team of researchers suggests there were about 250 people in the first group to enter the New World from Siberia some 15,000 years ago. Nelson Fagundes of Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, Michael Crawford of the University of Kansas, and their colleagues analyzed DNA samples obtained from ten Native American individuals living in Central and South America, ten people from different Siberian groups, and 15 people from China. Computer simulation models helped the scientists work backward from the genetic variation and divergence seen in the populations today to figure out the original size of the so-called founding group. “Large populations have very efficient selection,” Fagundes explained, “while in small populations, mildly deleterious alleles can spread, which may increase genetic susceptibility to some diseases.” The estimate for the founding population in this case is so small that there would have been little genetic variation associated with the first wave of migration. Fagundes added that new genetic mutations, and the addition of later waves of migrants, eventually increased genetic diversity among Native American populations. To read in-depth about the first people to arrive in the Americas, go to “America, in the Beginning.”

Horse and Stable Discovered in Pompeii

POMPEII, ITALY—The Local reports that a horse killed during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 was found in an ancient stable outside of Pompeii’s city walls. A team of archaeologists injected liquid plaster into the cavity left behind by the horse’s body in the ancient ash. They are confident it was a horse based on a clear imprint of the animals’ ear, which had been pressed into the ground. The horse is thought to have stood about five feet tall at the withers. Traces of a harness with iron and bronze fittings were found near its head, suggesting it may have been a parade horse. The skeletons of donkeys and mules have been recovered from a stable at the House of the Chaste Lovers, but Pompeii officials said this is the first complete outline of a horse to be found in the ruined city. The recent rescue excavations, undertaken in an area of Civita Giuliana where unauthorized tunnels were found, also recovered jugs, tools, and kitchen utensils. To read more about Pompeii, go to “Food and Wine Gardens: Pompeii, Italy.”

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