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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 18

New Thoughts on Egtved Girl and Skrydstrup Woman

AARHUS, DENMARK—Isotope geochemist Rasmus Andreasen of Aarhus University and his colleagues suggest that the presence of modern, strontium-rich agricultural lime in the landscape may have skewed earlier interpretations of the Egtved Girl and Skrydstrup Woman, according to a Live Science report. Previous analysis of isotopes obtained from the Bronze Age remains indicated that the Egtved Girl may have grown up in southern Germany, and traveled between Denmark and another location in the last years of her life, before she died in Denmark. Skrydstrup Woman was also thought to have arrived in Denmark as a teenager. But Andreasen grew concerned that the maps of strontium distributions on which these conclusions were based did not reflect conditions prior to the introduction of modern farming techniques. After adjusting for the presence of agricultural lime, Andreasen and his team members say the data suggests the women may have actually spent their lives within about six miles of where they were buried. The researchers behind the original studies are unconvinced, however. “Overall, there is nothing in the study from Aarhus which changes our interpretation: That the two women from the Bronze Age came from afar,” said Karin Frei, a professor of archaeometry at the National Museum of Denmark, and Robert Frei, a professor of geology and geochemistry at the University of Copenhagen. To read about the interpretation of the Egtved Girl's burial that included the Freis' conclusions, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”

Boat Described by Herodotus Discovered in Nile River

OXFORD, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, a unique shipwreck has been discovered near the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion, which is located at the mouth of the Nile River. The vessel was constructed in a manner described by the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt and observed the construction of an unusual trading vessel. Damian Robinson of Oxford University said the hull is the first such ship to be found. Known as a “baris,” the ship had a crescent-shaped hull made from thick planks connected with tenon-ribs fastened with pegs, rather than mortice-and-tenon joints. The archaeological evidence has helped scholars to understand the ancient text. “Herodotus describes the boats as having long internal ribs,” Robinson said. “Nobody really knew what that meant…. That structure’s never been seen archaeologically before. Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying.” For more on Herodotus, go to “Did the 'Father of History' Get It Wrong?

Neanderthal Tool Workshop Unearthed in Poland

SILESIA, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that a 60,000-year-old flint workshop has been discovered on a riverbank in southern Poland. Among some 17,000 pieces of flint, thought to have been worked by Neanderthals, Andrzej Wiśniewski of the University of Wrocław and his team were able to find areas where certain kinds of tools were crafted. In fact, the researchers were able to reconstruct the waste from the production of individual tools, and determine how they had been made. Wiśniewski also said the site is the first Neanderthal flint workshop to be found in Central Europe in the open air, rather than in a cave. “It appears that in this place a community was present over a longer period, as evidenced by the large number of discovered objects,” he explained. “In addition, there are also preserved remains of mammoth, rhinoceros, and horse bones.” Microscopic traces of meat were found on a few of the tools that remained in the workshop. The others were presumably carried to other sites for use. For more, go to “Neanderthal Tool Time.”

Friday, March 15

DNA Obtained From Tobacco Pipe at Maryland Plantation

ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MARYLAND—WTOP reports that female human DNA has been obtained from a 200-year-old tobacco pipe discovered in the slave quarters at Belvoir, a Maryland plantation. “Using modern DNA databases,” said archaeologist Julie Schablitsky of the Maryland Department of Transportation, it was “found that the person that smoked that particular tobacco pipe was most genetically similar to the Mende of Sierra Leone [in] West Africa.” Descendants of the enslaved people who once lived at Belvoir have been involved in the research, but the woman who smoked this pipe has not yet been linked to any living relatives. To read in-depth about excavations at Belvoir, go to “Letter from Maryland: Belvoir's Legacy.”

Changes in Diet May Have Fostered Changes in Speech

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—According to a report in Science, the spread of agriculture and consumption of easier-to-chew foods may have led to changes in human jaws and their arrangement of teeth, which in turn allowed people to make new sounds and create new words. In the 1980s, linguist Charles Hockett suggested that chewing tough, gritty food would have put force on hunter-gatherers’ lower jaws, making the bone grow larger so that the upper and lower teeth aligned in an “edge-to-edge” bite. Such a bite would have made it hard to push the upper jaw forward to make the sounds “f” and “v,” Hockett reasoned. Linguist Balthasar Bickel of the University of Zurich and his colleagues used computer models to test this idea and compare how such sounds, known as labiodentals, are made with an edge-to-edge bite and with the overbites that developed in people who lived in agricultural societies. Bickel suspects “f” and “v” sounds were first made accidentally by wealthy people who ate soft foods. The researchers also examined hunter-gatherer languages, and found that hunter-gatherers use about one-fourth of the labiodentals that farming societies do. Bickel’s colleague Steven Moran pointed out that, with the ability to make new sounds came new problems. “Our lower jaws are shorter,” he said, “we have impacted wisdom teeth, more crowding—and cavities.” To read about an archaeological mystery involving teeth, go to “The Case of the Missing Incisors.”

Genomes Offer Clues to Population History of Iberia

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—BBC News reports that a new genetic study conducted by an international team of scientists led by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Barcelona’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology analyzed the genomes of 403 people who were buried on the Iberian Peninsula between 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1600, nearly 1,000 people who lived elsewhere in antiquity, and some 2,900 living people. One of the study’s conclusions suggests that hunter-gatherers in the region were a mix of people from Iberia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. In the Bronze Age, migrants from central Europe replaced male lineages in Spain over a span of about 400 years, but no clear evidence of a burst of violence in this period has been found in the archaeological record, according to Iñigo Olalde of Harvard Medical School. The migrants, who were members of the Bell Beaker culture, had ancestors who had been farmers throughout Europe and nomadic herders from Asia and eastern Europe. They probably carried bronze weapons and may have traveled on horseback. These innovations may have given them greater status and reproductive success when they arrived in Spain, Olalde explained. “Their male descendants would have inherited the wealth and social status, and themselves also had much higher reproductive success,” he said. For more on archaeology in Spain, go to “The Red Lady of El Mirón.”

Thursday, March 14

New Dates for Ireland’s "Bog Butters"

DUBLIN, IRELAND—The Journal reports that a new study of Ireland’s "bog butter" has been conducted by Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, Jessica Smyth of University College Dublin, and their colleagues. They dated 32 bog butters held at the National Museum of Ireland, and analyzed samples of the fats to determine whether they were actually milk fats or fats from animal carcasses. The results of the tests indicate that the waxy substances are indeed degraded butter, and push back the origin of the practice of storing butter in bogs by some 1,500 years. In fact, five of the samples date to the Bronze Age. The oldest sample, which dates to around 1700 B.C., is thought to have been wrapped in bark. Smyth said the dairy products may have simply been stored in the cool, low-oxygen, high-acid environment of bogs in order to preserve them for future consumption, or they may have been offerings, just as gold, axes, and other bladed weapons were deposited in bogs during the Bronze Age. For more, go to “Oldest Bog Body.”

The Archaeology of Otters

LONDON, ENGLAND—CBC News reports that archaeologists joined biologists to investigate otters’ use of stones as tools at a site in central coastal California where there are plentiful mussels growing on a series of drainage pipes. Archaeologist Natalie Uomini of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History noticed piles of broken mussel shells and damaged rocks near the pipes. Continued observation of the otters and mapping of the rocks revealed that the otters tended to pound the mussels on points and ridges on the side of the rocks facing the water, which left the edges smoother and lighter in color than the rest of the rock. Underwater middens in the mud at the site could contain more than 100,000 mussel shells, the researchers noted. They also learned that the otters are precise in the way they hold the shells, and break them open the same way each time, suggesting they are probably right-handed. Biologists could use the information gleaned from the study to look for environments where otters may have lived in the past, and archaeologists could use the information to distinguish between middens left by otters and those created by early humans. To read about artifacts made by humans from shells, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Pig Bone Analysis Offers Hints to Human Travels

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—Analysis of samples taken from the remains of 131 Neolithic pigs unearthed at Durrington Walls, a henge site located about two miles away from Stonehenge, suggests many of the them were brought to Wiltshire some 2,800 years ago from places scattered all over Britain, according to a Live Science report. “This is the pig age,” said Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University. “This is the only age where pigs are the number one domestic species.” Madgwick explained that because pigs develop rapidly, it is easier to tell where they grew up by analyzing chemical isotopes in their teeth than it is with human remains. He also argues that the pigs were probably transported live and slaughtered near the henge, since many pig skulls have been recovered at the site. Pig skulls are heavy and carry little meat, Madgwick explained, making it unlikely that Neolithic travelers would have carried them on long journeys. The meat would have likely spoiled on the long trip, even if smoked, he added. For more on what researchers have learned from isotope analysis of animal remains, go to “Mild Boars.”

Inscription Identifies Ancient City in Negev Desert

COLOGNE, GERMANY—The Times of Israel reports that a team of German and Israeli archaeologists led by Michael Heinzelmann of the University of Cologne has found a Greek inscription identifying the site of Halutza, an ancient city in the Negev Desert on the Incense Route, which linked the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. The inscription, which dates to A.D. 300, was found near a monumental bathhouse, and refers to Elusa, a name known from historic documents, including the Madaba mosaic map, which was discovered on the floor of a Byzantine-era church in Jordan. The city also boasted nine churches, three pottery workshops, a large theater, and a huge building with columns. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority said looting during the Ottoman period destroyed much of the ruins. To read about the discovery of a brick inscribed with a portion of the Odyssey, go to “Epic Find.”