Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, June 08

Peru’s Ancient Skull Surgeries Studied

CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA—Neurologist David Kushner of the University of Miami and bioarchaeologist John Verano of Tulane University conducted a study of skulls from throughout Peru bearing evidence of trepanation, and found that during various periods as many as 80 percent of the pre-Columbian patients survived the procedure, according to a report in Science Magazine. The earliest skulls in the study to show signs of trepanation—the act of drilling, cutting, or scraping a hole in a skull for medical reasons—dated back to 400 B.C., and came from Peru’s southern coast. The latest skulls in the study, from the Inca Empire, dated to the sixteenth century A.D. If the surgical hole showed no signs of healing, the researchers concluded that the patient had died either during surgery or shortly thereafter. Smooth bone around the opening was taken to indicate the patient survived long enough for the bone to heal. The study suggests that about 40 percent of the earliest patients survived, but by the Inca period, between 75 and 83 percent of the patients recovered. Kushner also noted that the trepanation technique appears to have improved over time—the holes became smaller with less cutting and drilling of bone, and thus less risk of brain injury. For more on archaeology in Peru, go to “Unknown Elites.”

Bronze Age Bubonic Plague Bacteria Found in Russia

JENA, GERMANY—The Independent reports that Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague, has been detected in 3,800-year-old skeletons in southwestern Russia, pushing back the origins of the disease by at least 1,000 years. Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said other samples of the bacteria dating to the Bronze Age have been found, but they did not have the genetic components necessary to transmit the bubonic form of the disease, which is thought to have been spread by fleas, rats, humans, and other mammals. This form of the disease probably spread easily along emerging trade networks, leading to the plague outbreak in A.D. 541 that devastated Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire. For more, go to “A Parisian Plague.”

Remains of Possible Executed Man Found in England

WEST SUSSEX, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that a well-preserved skeleton dating to the early eleventh century was unearthed in southeast England during an investigation ahead of the construction of a wind farm. The man, who died sometime between the ages of 25 and 35, had been buried without a coffin and on his own, rather than in a Christian cemetery, as would have been expected. Two cut marks found on the vertebrae in his neck would have been fatal, according to Jim Stevenson of Archaeology South East. He thinks the man was executed during the later Anglo-Saxon period. The man’s bones also show evidence of a healed fracture on his left arm, and stress on the vertebrae from repeated bending and twisting motions. For more on the Anglo-Saxon period in England, go to “Letter From England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Napoleonic War Graves Exhumed in Austria

DEUTSCH-WAGRAM, AUSTRIA—According to a Live Science report, archaeological investigations ahead of highway construction through the area where the Battle of Wagram was fought on July 5 and 6, 1809, have uncovered mass graves of Austrian and Napoleonic troops. “We are in the hotspot of the battle,” said Alexander Stagl of Novetus, a cultural resources firm conducting rescue excavations at the site. Many of the soldiers were buried fully clothed, leaving behind their uniform buttons in the graves. Archaeologist Slawomir Konik said the research team may eventually be able to identify a French officer whose buttons were recovered. Anthropological study of the bones has detected scurvy, a condition caused by vitamin C deficiency; inflammation of the joints from carrying heavy loads over long marches; pneumonia and other respiratory diseases; and “a lot of impressive trauma,” said Michaela Binder of the Austrian Archaeological Institute. “These were the men that bore the brunt of the battles…55,000 people dead in two days—that’s hard to imagine,” she added. For more on excavations of soldiers who took part in the Napoleonic Wars, go to “The Grand Army Diet.”

Thursday, June 07

France Returns Artifacts to Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that nine artifacts recovered in France have been returned to Egypt. Shaaban Abdel-Gawad of the repatriation department at the Ministry of Antiquities said five of the artifacts are pieces of an ancient sarcophagus. The other pieces include two cat statues, a basalt sculpture of a human head, and a plaster-covered wooden mummy mask that had been stolen from a storage area on Elephantine Island in 2013. To read about a genetic analysis of two Egyptian mummies, go to “We Are Family.”

Rat Study Offers Clues to Island Ecology

MUNICH, GERMANY—Smithsonian Magazine reports that Jillian Swift of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues analyzed the levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in 145 rat bones collected at archaeological sites on three Polynesian island chains to see how the arrival of humans and rats some 2,000 years ago impacted their ecology. Although not domesticated, rats eat and live in environments created by humans. Based on the levels of carbon isotopes in the bones, researchers could determine the balance of tropical grasses and cultivated plants, such as breadfruit, yam, and taro, in the rats’ diets. Levels of nitrogen isotopes provide evidence of the balance of land-based and marine food sources. The study indicates that the rats’ consumption of sea birds and other marine resources declined at times when agricultural food sources increased. These changes occurred at different times on different islands, except for one island with steep hills and poor soil, which continually relied on fishing for survival. “The ecosystems we see today are a result of deep-time historical process,” Swift said. For more on archaeology in Polynesia, go to “Letter From Hawaii: Inside Kauai's Past.”

Did Most Men Die Off 7,000 Years Ago?

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Live Science reports that population geneticist Marcus Feldman of Stanford University has proposed a new explanation for the population bottleneck between 5,000 to 7,000 years ago detected in the genes of modern men, which suggest that during this stretch, there was just one male for every 17 females. Feldman and his team conducted 18 simulations that took into account factors such as Y chromosome mutations, competition between groups, and death. The study suggests that warfare among people living in clans made up of males from the same line of descent could have wiped out entire male lineages and decreased the diversity of the Y chromosome. In this scenario, there are not dramatically fewer males, but there was significantly less diversity in their genes. “In that same group, the women could have come from anywhere,” Feldman said. The study found no bottleneck in mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child. “[The women] would’ve been brought into the group from either the victories that they had over other groups, or they could’ve been females who were residing in that area before,” he said, since the victorious male warriors may have killed all the men they conquered, but kept the women alive and assimilated them. To read about genetic adaptation to life at high elevations, go to “The Heights We Go To.”

Small, Sculpted Head May Depict Ancient King

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—According to a Live Science report, the intricately carved head from a statue estimated to have stood between eight and ten inches tall has been uncovered in a large building situated on the highest point of the ancient city of Abel Beth Maacah, in northern Israel. Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University said the glazed ceramic head depicts an elite bearded man with long, black hair held with a yellow and black headband. He thinks the statue may have represented a king, since it was found in a possible administrative building. Radiocarbon dating of organic material found in the same room as the sculpture suggests it is about 2,800 years old. Mullins explained that at that time, different kingdoms, including Israel, Tyre, and Aram-Damascus, controlled the site of Abel Beth Maacah, so there are many possible royal candidates for the portrait. To read about recent discoveries of mosaic inscriptions in Israel, go to “Gods of the Galilee.”

Wednesday, June 06

Nautical Archaeologists Examine 19th-Century Schooner

TORONTO, CANADA—CBC News reports that nautical archaeologists from Texas A&M University are examining the wreckage of an early nineteenth-century Lake Ontario schooner unearthed at a construction site in downtown Toronto. Only the ship’s keel, the lower portions of the stern and bow, and a small section of the hull on the port side have survived. Measuring about 50 feet long, the ship is thought to have been used to carry goods across Lake Ontario. Team leader Carolyn Kennedy said the ship had been patched and modified, but it is not yet clear why. Kennedy's investigation should offer insight into how the sailors lived and what cargo they had on board. “They would have carried all that cargo to the settlers who were coming to the city of York, to the city of Toronto, who would really have needed a lot of supplies because there would have been a lot of wilderness out here,” she said. More than 1,000 artifacts, including an American penny, a rivet hammer, chisels, a soup ladle, a fork, dishes, a clay tobacco pipe, a clasp knife, and a tin cup were recovered along with the wreckage. To read in-depth about the discovery of a famed nineteenth-century shipwreck in Canada's Arctic, go to “Franklin’s Last Voyage.”

Radiocarbon Cycle Reevaluated

ITHACA, NEW YORK—According to a Laboratory Equipment report, a team led by dendrochronologist Sturt Manning of Cornell University has found that the traditional carbon-14 calibration curve for the Northern Hemisphere produces inaccurate dates for organic materials in southern Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. Standard radiocarbon chronologies are based on the assumption that radiocarbon levels are similar and stable everywhere across the Northern or Southern Hemisphere at any given time. The researchers dated juniper trees in Jordan known to have grown between about A.D. 1610 and 1940 through an assessment of their tree rings, and found a discrepancy of about 19 years—enough to require a restructuring of the historical timeline—with radiocarbon tests. Manning suggests the variations in the radiocarbon cycle could be related to climate conditions, and what time of year plants grow in different parts of each of the two hemispheres. For more on potential problems with radiocarbon dating, go to “Premature Aging.”