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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, July 28

Ceremonial Andean Drinking Vessels Studied

CARLISLE, PENNSYLVANIA—According to a statement released by Dickinson College, a team of researchers has learned new details about the production of Andean ceremonial drinking vessels known as qeros during the colonial period. The researchers studied lead white pigment used to decorate 20 qeros and found that the pigment used on each was associated with one of three distinct isotope signatures. Two of these signatures, found on a total of eight qeros, are the same as those found in lead white paints used in European artwork from the same period—suggesting that these vessels were decorated with pigments imported to the Andes from Europe. The third signature, found in the remaining 12 qeros, suggests that the lead white pigment used to decorate them was manufactured locally. According to Alyson Thibodeau, a geochemist at Dickinson College, the qeros decorated with European lead white may date to earlier in the colonial period, while those decorated with lead white made from Andean ores may date to later on. Qeros from the colonial period were generally produced in identical pairs and used to make ceremonial toasts. To read about a 3,000-year-old copper mask discovered in northwest Argentina, go to “Andean Copper Age.”

Roman Settlement Found in Cambridgeshire

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of a new residential development just north of Cambridge have revealed traces of a Roman settlement, Cambridge Independent reports. Situated at the intersection of a Roman canal and road, the 17-acre area features an elaborate 2,000-year-old ditch system dating to the late Iron Age or early Roman period. Archaeologists have also unearthed pottery kilns and ceramic fragments that indicate Roman industrial production, as well as coins and a Bronze Age palstave ax head. To read about 6,000 years of history uncovered during construction on Cambridgeshire's A14 roadway, go to "Letter from England: Building a Road Through History."

Colonial-Era Rappahannock Site Uncovered in Virginia

RICHMOND COUNTY, VIRGINIA— reports that a team of archaeologists and field school students from St. Mary's College and members of the Rappahannock Tribe have discovered remains of what may have been the site of Rappahannock religious ceremonies in the eighteenth century. Excavating on a 250-acre parcel of land situated along Fones Cliffs, a strech of steep cliffs on the banks of the Rappahannock River, the researchers believe they have uncovered a property described in historical documents as the home of a once-enslaved Native individual known as Indian Peter. Indian Peter is recorded to have been manumitted in 1699 and may have lived at the site between 1700 and 1730, hosting community gatherings and rituals overlooking the river. Artifacts uncovered at the site include crystals and hand-etched pieces of glass, which archaeologists say may have been used in ceremonies, as well as English and German ceramics, a wineglass stem, and a copper buckle. The team hopes to eventually locate additional Rappahannock settlements along the river, which are recorded in the tribe's oral history and were described by John Smith in a 1608 account. To read more about the archaeology of colonia-era Virginia, go to "Letter from Virginia: American Refugees." 

Parthian Burial Unearthed in Central Iran

ISFAHAN, IRAN—The Tehran Times reports that a team of researchers led by archaeologist Alireza Jafari-Zand has unearthed the remains of a woman at the Parthian site of Tepe Ashraf, near the central Iranian city of Isfahan. The burial, together with the recent discoveries of a horse burial and two large earthen jars containing remains, suggests that the researchers have uncovered a cemetery dating to the Parthian era, which lasted from 247 B.C. to A.D. 224. Noting that evidence of Parthian burials is scant in central Iran, Jafari-Zand is proposing to expand excavations of the site, much of which seems to lie beneath a modern street. To read in depth about a Bronze Age Iranian settlement known as “Burnt City,” go to “The World In Between.” 

Monday, July 27

How Did Neanderthals Experience Pain?

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—A new study of three Neanderthal genomes has found that they each carried three mutations on one gene on both sets of chromosomes that may have made the individuals predisposed to a heightened sense of pain, according to a Nature News report. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology explained that while very rare in modern humans, the mutations, which are involved in altering the shape of a protein that carries painful sensations to the spinal cord and brain, may have been common in Neanderthals. Pääbo and his colleagues then looked for evidence of the Neanderthal mutation in a British database of modern genomes. None of the database participants had two copies of the mutated gene, as the Neanderthals did, but those who had one copy were about seven percent more likely to report having pain than people without the mutation. The researchers note that how the signal was processed in the spinal cord and brain would have also contributed to how Neanderthals experienced pain. Further study of additional Neanderthal genomes will investigate if the mutation might have been a beneficial adaptation. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

CT Scans Reveal Contents of Small Ancient Egyptian Mummies

HAIFA, ISRAEL—According to a Live Science report, CT scans have revealed that two small ancient Egyptian sarcophagi held in the collections of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa for more than 50 years did not hold mummified human hearts, as had been noted in museum records. Instead, one of the mummies, which measures 18 inches long and was shaped to resemble Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the dead, life, and vegetation, holds tightly packed grain and mud. “During Osiris festivals that were held, [the ancient Egyptians] would produce these,” said Ron Hillel of Haifa Museums. “It would be a mixture of clay or sand with these grains, and then they would dip it in water and the grains would germinate.” The ritual tied Osiris to death, life and fertility, Hillel explained. The second mummy, which measures about 10 inches long, is bird-shaped and represents the god Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris and Isis associated with the sky and pharaohs. Inside, the CT scan revealed the partial remains of a bird, perhaps a falcon. The bird appears to be missing a leg and some of its abdominal organs, and it has a broken neck—an injury thought to have occurred after death. Hillel and the team of researchers studying the mummies now plan to radiocarbon date them. To read about animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Eroded Glyphs Revealed at Maya City in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—The Art Newspaper reports that researchers led by archaeologist María José Con Uribe of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History used photogrammetry and light cast from different angles to record and read eroded glyphs at the Maya city of Coba, which is located in the northern lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula. After ten years of work, the researchers have identified the names of 14 rulers who governed the city from about A.D. 500 to 780. “This allows us to take the first steps towards a reconstruction of the historical events of this city, who governed it, at what time, and most importantly, allows us to find relations between Coba and other sites or regions,” Con Uribe said. Lady Yopaat, one of the leaders identified by Con Uribe’s team, is thought to have increased the power and influence of the city during her 40-year reign in the early seventh century. To read about the Maya "white road" that connected Coba and the city of Yaxuna, go to "Around the World: Mexico."

Friday, July 24

Choctaw Wooden Bow Found in Mississippi Creek Bed

BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI—The News & Observer reports that a Mississippi man will donate a bow that he discovered in a creek on his property to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Scott Summerlin at first thought the 42-inch-long bow was a stick poking out of the creek bed, but he soon realized the object had been shaped and engraved with an image of a deer head and a cat-like animal. Summerlin said an indentation of a thumb in the bow's wood indicates the bearer was right-handed. Experts from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The Cobb Institute of Archaeology, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which once lived in Mississippi, have examined photographs of the bow and believe it is between 300 and 500 years old. “This is something that was probably lost, floated down the creek, got water logged and sank,” said James Starnes of the Mississippi Office of Geology. “It was then covered with mud.” Starnes explained that the tannin-rich water in the stream helped to preserve the rare wooden object in Mississippi’s hot, humid climate. “It belongs to the Choctaw and they should get it back,” Summerlin concluded. To read about some of the oldest-known bows found in the course of excavations, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Hunting Equipment."

Gene Study Pushes Back Origin of Smallpox

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—According to a Nature News report, an international team of researchers suggests that the virus that causes smallpox has been in the human population for about 1,700 years, or about 1,000 years longer than previously thought. The scientists screened DNA from the remains of 1,867 people who lived in Eurasia and the Americas between 32,000 and 150 years ago, and detected strands of DNA resembling the genetic makeup of the modern virus that causes smallpox in 26 of them. The researchers then extracted additional genetic material from the remains of 13 of these individuals for further study. Eleven of these individuals came from Scandinavia, Russia, and the United Kingdom, and their remains dated from between A.D. 600 and 1050. Evolutionary geneticist Martin Sikora said that four of these individuals carried a previously unknown strain of the virus. “It’s a separate evolutionary trajectory that died out at some point and, as far as we know, is not present any more today,” Sikora said. The scientists then used the differences between the ancient lineages of the virus and the modern one to determine that they split from a common ancestor about 1,700 years ago, he explained. To read about how ancient microbial DNA can be used to study health in the past and present, go to "Worlds Within Us."

Zapotec Carvings Discovered in Central Mexico

SANTA CRUZ HUEHUEPIAXTLA, MEXICO—BBC News reports that local people discovered a collection of rock carvings on top of the Cerro de Peña in central Mexico. José Alfredo Arellanes of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said a total of 87 glyphs have been found to date. The images include two etched stone panels and smaller carved stones. One of the panels depicts a human figure with horns and claws clothed in a loincloth. Other images show an iguana, an eagle, and a female figure resembling a bat that may depict a deity. Arellanes said the Zapotec are thought to have made the carvings about 1,500 years ago. There were probably pyramids, a ball court, and a ceremonial area on the mountaintop, he added. To read about private rituals practiced by Zapotec nobles, go to "Zapotec Power Rites."