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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, February 14

Scholars Analyze Russia’s Sunghir Burials

  ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Live Science reports that researchers led by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, and Alexandra Buzhilova of Lomonosov Moscow State University, re-examined the contents of 34,000-year-old graves excavated in western Russia in the mid-twentieth century. Known as the Sunghir burials, the graves included the remains of two boys, aged ten and 12 years old, who had been buried together with more than 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, more than 20 armbands, some 300 pierced fox teeth, 16 ivory mammoth spears, carved artifacts, and deer antlers. In addition, two human fibulas had been laid across the boys’ chests. Trinkaus noted that a 40-year-old man had been buried with similar items, but far fewer of them. “From the point of view of the mortuary behavior, the burial of the adult is, in fact, very different from the burial of the children,” he said. The children’s skeletons suggest they had experienced periods of nutritional stress, and would not have been able to contribute to the highly mobile community in the way the full-grown man may have. The ten-year-old had short, bowed thigh bones, but he was physically active. The 12-year-old, however, had been bedridden, and the lack of wear on his teeth suggests he had been fed soft foods. To read about another recent discovery in Russia, go to “Nomadic Chic.”

Head Shapes May Have Marked Status in Pre-Inca Peru

ITHACA, NEW YORK—Science News reports that bioarchaeologist Matthew Velasco of Cornell University examined the 600-year-old skulls of 211 members of Peru’s Collagua ethnic community, and found that intentional head-shaping of the young may have helped to bind together powerful elites. High-ranking elites are thought to have been buried in structures built against a cliff face, while non-elites were buried in caves and under rocky overhangs. Some of the bones and sediments were radiocarbon dated, so that Velasco could track how skull shapes changed over time. He found that about three-quarters of the 114 elite skulls dating to the late pre-Inca period, between A.D. 1300 and 1450, had been modified, and more than 60 percent of the modified skulls had been elongated. Velasco thinks the elongated style may have been preferred by elites, and speculates that their unity may have helped the Collaguas negotiate a peaceful integration into the Inca Empire. For more, go to “Letter From Peru: Connecting Two Realms.”

Roman-Era Temple Unearthed in Upper Egypt

ASWAN, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the students of the Egyptian Excavation Field School have uncovered a second-century temple at the Kom Al-Rasras archaeological site. Cartouches of the Roman emperors Domitian, Hadrian, and Antonius Pius have been found engraved in its sandstone blocks. The temple, called “Khenu” in hieroglyphics, was made up of a three-chambered sanctuary, which led to a cross-sectional hall, and a second hall with a sandstone ramp. Stones engraved with stars that may have been part of the temple’s ceiling were found inside its walls. “The discovered site might be connected to [the quarries of the] Gebel el-Silsila area and the temple was most probably a part of the residential area of the quarry workers,” said Ayman Ashmawy of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. The excavators will continue to search for the residential area of the el-Silsila quarries. To read about a discovery at Gebel el-Silsila, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”

Ice-Age Artifacts Dated in the Netherlands

LEIDEN, THE NETHERLANDS—A piece of bison bone recovered from the North Sea by a Dutch fishing vessel in 2005 has been radiocarbon dated to 13,500 years ago, according to a report in the International Business Times. The bone had been carved with a zig-zag pattern. An adult human skull fragment, also recovered from the North Sea, has been dated to 13,000 years ago. The bison bone is said to be the oldest piece of art found in the Netherlands, and the skull fragment is said to be the oldest modern human remains found there. Pinprick-sized pits in the skull fragment indicate the person may have suffered from anemia in childhood or have had a vitamin deficiency that caused scurvy or rickets. For more, go to “A Traditional Neanderthal Home.”

Tuesday, February 13

Sweden’s Underwater Hunter-Gatherer Burial

VÄSTERÅS, SWEDEN—According to a Live Science report, archaeologists have excavated the site of an unusual burial of 11 adults and an infant in east-central Sweden. Some 8,000 years ago, the burial, now in a forested region, was at the bottom of a lake. The skulls of seven of the hunter-gatherer adults bore signs of partially healed blunt-force trauma. “Somebody gave them love and care after this [trauma] and healed them back to life again,” said Fredrik Hallgren of the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. Two of the skulls, one of which contained a piece of brain tissue, were found mounted on wooden stakes that may have served as handles, and may have broken through the water’s surface after the skulls were placed on top of the large stones at the base of the burial site. The surviving brain tissue suggests the person was placed in the water shortly after death, but some of the other skulls may have been placed there long after the deaths of the individuals. The carefully arranged bones of wild boar, red deer, moose, and roe deer were also found. “It’s a very enigmatic structure,” Hallgren said. “We really don’t understand the reason why they did this and why they put it under water.” For more, go to “Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480.”

Copper Ax Fragment Found at Neolithic Site in Denmark

BORNHOLM, DENMARK—According to a report in Live Science, a small piece of copper has been found at the 5,000-year-old Vasagard archaeological site, which may have been a center of sun worship during the Neolithic period. The site consists of traces of several round timber structures within an earthen-wall enclosure. Hand-sized, polished stones inscribed with connected radiating lines resembling spider webs, and fragments of stones that may have been inscribed with symbolic maps, have also been recovered from the site. The piece of copper was found in what had been one of ten postholes for the largest timber structure. Michael Thorsen of the Bornholm Museum said the metal may have been part of a larger ax that had been buried as part of a sacrifice. He suggests the ax had not been made locally, but was imported from the Mediterranean or the Balkans, where people were producing copper objects at that time. The building may have been used for rituals or as a place for housing the dead before it was ceremonially demolished and its postholes filled in with burned grain, burned stone axes, and the copper ax. “For me, it just makes the structure even more important, because they were offering a rare piece of copper like this,” Thorsen said. To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Ancient Camel Sculptures Discovered in Saudi Arabia

AL JAWF, SAUDI ARABIA—Haaretz reports that 12 panels of life-sized reliefs of 11 camels and two equids have been discovered on three rocky spurs in remote northwest Saudi Arabia by a team of scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. The sculptures are estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and have been damaged by erosion and construction projects. Only one or two of the images are shown with what may be a rope—otherwise, the animals are said to have been lovingly depicted in their natural state. Such artworks are rare on the Arabian Peninsula, and usually consist of geometric forms, scenes of war or hunting, or other animals. Flakes of flint tools have been found at the so-called Camel Site, but they have not been associated with the carvings. The researchers speculate the site may have been used as a boundary marker, a rest stop for caravans, or a place to venerate Al-Lat, a goddess associated with camels. To read about another recent discovery in Saudi Arabia, go to “Hot Property.”

Monday, February 12

Medical Writings From Ancient Mesopotamia Studied

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—According to a Science Nordic report, Troels Pank Arbøll of the University of Copenhagen studied 2,700-year-old texts written on clay tablets by Kisir-Ashur, a medical student who lived in the Neo-Assyrian Empire at the end of the seventh century B.C. Kisir-Ashur described how he was trained, and his writings offer insights into how the Assyrians understood the concept of illness. “It’s an insight into some of the earliest examples of what we can describe as science,” Arbøll said. During the earlier stages of his education, Kisir-Ashur practiced his skills on animals, then progressed to treating babies, and finally adults. The texts also reveal that disease was thought to have been caused by sinful or objectionable behavior by the sick person, or the result of witchcraft performed against the sick person. After the power that caused the disease was identified, it was treated with medical agents, incantations, prayers, and rituals. Healers also treated economic and social problems, which were thought to have the same origins as illnesses. “He does not work simply with religious rituals, but also with plant-based medical treatments,” Arbøll added. Kisir-Ashur also experimented with the venom of scorpions and snakes, and observed patients who had suffered bites or stings. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”

Close Human-Dog Relationships Date Back 14,000 Years

LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS—Veterinarian Luc Janssens of Leiden University recently examined the dog remains discovered in a Paleolithic grave in western Germany in 1914, and found that the younger of the two animals in the grave had suffered from canine distemper, according to a Live Science report. Analysis of the pup’s teeth revealed it had suffered from two or three bouts of the serious viral illness, which is marked by symptoms such as fever, lack of appetite, dehydration, fatigue, diarrhea, and vomiting in its first phase, to be followed by stuffy nose, laryngitis, and pneumonia. If a dog survives the second phase of the disease, it can then experience neurological problems and seizures. Janssens says the animal would have required intensive care from its human companions, and would not have been of any practical use as a working animal while it was ill. When combined with the fact that the dogs’ remains had been included in a human grave, which also contained a bone pin, a sculpture of an elk made from elk antlers, a bear’s penis bone, and a red-deer tooth, the pup’s condition suggests there had been an emotional bond of care between the species. To read about a Roman dog statue discovered in England, go to “Artifact.”