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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, August 10

700-Year-Old Octagon-Shaped Tomb Found in China

YANGQUANY, CHINA—A 700-year-old octagonal tomb with a pyramid-shaped roof has been discovered in north China, according to a Live Science report. It has been excavated by a team of archaeologists from Yangquan City’s Office of Cultural Heritage Administration and the Bureau of Cultural Relics and Tourism of the Suburbs of Yangquan City. The archaeologist said that the door to the tomb was placed in one of the eight walls, while the other seven featured murals, including depictions of the husband and wife who are thought to have occupied the tomb, and scenes from life in China, which was then under the rule of the Mongol Empire.The scenes include musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels led by a man wearing Mongol-style clothes. At the time the tomb was built, the Mongol dress code restricted Han Chinese officials to round-collared shirts and folded hats. The tomb's roof was decorated with images of the sun, moon, and stars. To read more about the Mongol Empire, go to "Khubilai Khan Fleet."

Homo erectus May Have Been Unable to Plan Ahead

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report, researchers led by Ceri Shipton of Australian National University say Homo erectus living in what is now Saudi Arabia employed “least-effort strategies” when making tools and gathering resources, when compared to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, who are thought to have gone the extra mile to obtain quality materials. Shipton explained that tools found at the site of a Homo erectus camp near the town of Saffaqah, which is about 175 miles west of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, were made from rocks sourced at a nearby outcrop that may even have rolled into camp. “We also found that in the technology they were using to make the stone tools, they were very conservative,” Shipton said. “They used the same strategies for making the tools in the face of changing environments.” As the local rivers dried up and the environment turned to desert, Shipton thinks the Homo erectus living in the camp may have been unable to plan ahead, and were perhaps reluctant to travel to pursue new water sources. “They would be just planning just a few hours, perhaps a day ahead at most, whereas Homo sapiens and Neanderthals [did] things like target seasonal migration,” he added. Shipton suggests this inability to adapt may have contributed to the extinction of Homo erectus. To read more about Homo erectus, go to "Homo Erectus Stands Alone." 

Pebble Mosaic Unearthed in Western Greece

ARTA, GREECE—Tornos News reports that a mosaic made of pebbles was discovered in a bathhouse near the center of the ancient city of Ambracia, which is located in northwestern Greece. The round mosaic features depictions of cupids, swans, fish, water fowl, and an octopus, rendered in off-white and dark river pebbles. Archaeologists from the Ephorate of Antiquities in Arta said the mosaic is similar to pebble mosaics found in fourth-century B.C. baths in Corinth. To read about Archaic period architecture and artifacts in Athens, go to "The Acropolis of Athens.

Thursday, August 09

Maya Ancestor Remains Discovered in Mexico Cave

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—According to a CBC report, archaeologists have discovered human remains in southern Mexico's Puyil cave, the earliest of which are estimated to be around 7,000 years old. According to archaeologist Alberto Martos of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the oldest remains—which are now on display in Mexico City—date to a period when the progenitors of the Maya began to shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian, sedentary one. These settlements eventually led to the grand city states of the Maya Classic Period (A.D. 250-900). The exhibit also houses artifacts uncovered in the surrounding region, including ceramics and jade artwork. Martos and his team believe that the cave was likely used by multiple groups over a long period of time and would have mostly functioned as a ritual, rather than domestic, space. To read more about Maya origins, go to "The City at the Beginning of the World." 

Bronze Age Activity Discovered on Remote Scottish Island

STAFFA, SCOTLAND—According to a report in The Scotsman, archaeologists working with the National Trust for Scotland have discovered evidence of human occupation on the Hebridean island of Staffa going back nearly 4,000 years. In addition to a fragment of prehistoric pottery, the team recovered a burnt grain of hulled barley from a small pit, which radiocarbon analysis dates to between 1880-1700 B.C. Previous estimates for the first human arrival on Staffa, which is now a tourism destination known for its distinctive geological formations, ranged between the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. According to Derek Alexander, the National Trust for Scotland’s Head of Archaeological Services, the team's next objective is to determine whether this evidence represents a long-term settlement on the island or, rather, occasional visits for ritual purposes. To read more about the Bronze Age Hebrides, go to "Scottish 'Frankenstein' Mummies." 

Study Suggests Europe’s Medieval Ivory Came From Greenland

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—According to an Associated Press report, a new genetic analysis of 1,000-year-old walrus skulls in European museum collections suggests at that at least 80 percent of them were imported from Norse settlements in Greenland. Walrus tusks were used to produce luxury items such as ivory crucifixes, knife handles, dice, and chess sets for Europe’s medieval elite. But because museum officials have been reluctant to allow scientists to take samples of medieval artifacts for testing, the source of the ivory was unknown. James Barrett of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues found 23 walrus tusks that were still attached to pieces of skull in museum collections around Europe, and collected samples of the bones for the investigation. The researchers now think a collapse in the European market for ivory, brought on by the Black Death and other factors, may have triggered the downfall of the Norse settlements, rather than the cooler climate of the Little Ice Age, as had been previously thought. To read more about the archaeology of Greenland, go to "Letter from Greenland." 

Wednesday, August 08

Can the Assassination of Roman Emperors Be Linked to Drought?

ONTARIO, CANADA—Economic historian Cornelius Christian of Brock University thinks the assassinations of Roman emperors could be linked to decreased rainfall and lack of food for the Roman military, according to a Live Science report. Christian compared ancient climate data collected in a previous study from fossilized tree rings in France and Germany—the Roman frontier—with records of mutinies and emperor assassinations. If local farmers could not produce enough food, he reasoned, hungry Roman soldiers could have been pushed into mutiny. “And that mutiny, in turn, would collapse support for the emperor and make him more prone to assassination,” Christian said. He pointed to the death of emperor Vitellius in A.D. 69 as an example. “Vitellius was an acclaimed emperor by his troops,” he explained. “Unfortunately, low rainfall hit that year, and he was completely flabbergasted. His troops revolted, and eventually he was assassinated in Rome.” Critics of the idea say the correlation of drought and assassination merits more research, but note the influence of inflation, disease, and war on the stability of the Roman Empire. To read more about the lives of Roman soldiers, who often lived in harsh conditions, go to "The Wall at the End of the Empire." 

5,000-Year-Old Axes Found in Scotland

KIRKWALL, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that two polished stone axes were uncovered last week at the Ness of Brodgar, a Neolithic settlement made up of monumental stone buildings on the island of Orkney. The first ax, the largest found so far at the site, showed signs of heavy use. Site director Nick Card of the University of the Highlands and Islands said the tool may have been damaged while cutting timber joists for a building with a characteristic stone-slab roof. The second ax had been shaped to maximize the beauty of the stone’s natural colors. It also showed signs of wear and tear from use, and may have even been used as an anvil, since it is covered in peck marks. Card explained that the second ax had been placed opposite the entrance of the structure in which it was found. The building was aligned to catch the equinox sunrise. He thinks axes may have served as symbols of power, in addition to multifunctional tools. To read more about the Ness of Brodgar, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."