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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, April 13

Asian Ancestors Detected in DNA Study in Mexico

IRAPUATO, MEXICO—According to a report in Science Magazine, population geneticist Juan Esteban Rodríguez and his advisor, Andrés Moreno-Estrada, of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, used data collected from the genomes of 500 living Mexicans to look for traces of Asian immigrants to Mexico. The scientists expected to find traces of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants who lived in northern Mexico, and so were surprised to find that about one-third of the people in the sample who live in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero also had significant Asian ancestry. Their DNA resembled that of present-day populations from the Philippines and Indonesia. Historic records suggest their ancestors may have been enslaved and carried from Asia to Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on Spanish galleons. “We’re uncovering these hidden stories of slavery and people who lost their identities when they disembarked in a whole new country,” Moreno-Estrada said. For more on the colonial history of Mexico, go to “Conquistador Contagion.”

Medieval Skeleton Found With Possible Arm Prosthesis

ROME, ITALY—Science Alert reports that the remains of a man whose partially amputated right arm appears to have been replaced with a knife has been found in a Lombard necropolis in northern Italy. Archaeologist Ileana Micarelli of Sapienza University said the man died between the ages of 40 and 50 sometime during the sixth to eighth centuries A.D. He had been placed in the grave with his right arm bent at the elbow and laid across his torso. A knife blade, a D-shaped buckle, and decomposed organic material—probably leather—were found aligned with the arm. Micarelli said the man’s hand may have been amputated after an injury from a fall or combat. He survived, and the ends of the arm bones had formed a callus and a bone spur on the ulna, perhaps from wearing a prosthesis. Micarelli also noted that the teeth on the man’s right side were very worn, possibly from using them to tighten straps that held a prosthesis in place. A ridge of bone on his shoulder may have also been caused by frequent tightening movements. For more on archaeology in Italy, go to “Rome’s Oldest Aqueduct.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remains Rediscovered

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a report in The Guardian, the lead coffins of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family have been found in the cellar of St. Michael’s Church, which was built in 1831 on London’s Highgate Hill. When Coleridge died in 1834, he was buried in the chapel at the nearby Highgate School. But in 1961, the coffins were moved from the chapel’s crumbling vault to St. Michael's. There, they were stored in an area that had been the wine cellar of a mansion that previously stood on the site. The door to the cellar was bricked up. Since then, the exact location of the coffins had been forgotten and they languished amid the rubble from the demolished mansion that still litters the cellar. A recent investigation of the cellar, however, found the entrance to the wine vault, and the coffins were spotted through a ventilation gap in the bricks. It turned out the coffins were situated just under an inscription on a memorial slab in the nave of the church reading, “Beneath this stone lies the body of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” “So that was a bit of a clue really,” said Drew Clode, a member of the parish. To read about another discovery in London, go to “A Cornucopia of Condiments.”

Thursday, April 12

Nineteenth-Century Graves Exhumed in New Zealand

LAWRENCE, NEW ZEALAND—Radio New Zealand reports that eight sets of skeletal remains have been exhumed from a nineteenth-century cemetery in Otago, located on the South Island of New Zealand. Three other possible graves at the site are being investigated. The cemetery was believed to have been cleared of human remains before it was closed in 1997. As part of the Otago Historic Cemeteries Bioarchaeology Project, the team is also excavating a second cemetery in Lawrence where Chinese immigrants and other marginalized people are thought to have been buried. “We want to create a detailed picture of what life was like at the time of the gold rush in the early 1860s,” said Hallie Buckley of the University of Otago. Isotopic and DNA analyses of the bones will be conducted. The remains will eventually be reinterred. For more, go to “World Roundup: New Zealand.”

Indonesian Rock Shelter Possibly Occupied During the Ice Age

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Xinhua reports that hominins appear to have reached the Indonesian island of Sulawesi at least 50,000 years ago, or at least 15,000 years earlier than previously thought. Adam Brumm of Griffith University led a team of archaeologists who conducted new excavations at the Leang Burung 2 rock shelter, and dug about ten feet deeper than previous excavations. In the deepest part of the site, the researchers found stone tools, which were dated to the time of the Ice Age through uranium series analysis, and bones of animals probably killed by the hunter-gatherers. But the lack of hominin remains means the hunter-gatherers may have been Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, or early modern humans. The excavators note that they have not yet reached the bottom of the rock shelter’s deposit. To read about earlier discoveries on Sulawesi, go to “The First Artists.”

Unusual Die Unearthed in Norway

BERGEN, NORWAY—Live Science reports that a 600-year-old die found along a wooden street lined with inns and pubs in southwestern Norway may have been designed for cheating during gambling. Archaeologists led by Ingrid Rekkavik of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research said this die is different from other medieval dice recovered in Bergen, which usually have the numbers one through six represented on their six sides. This particular die has two fives and two fours—the extra five and four replace numbers one and two on two sides. It is possible the die was used to play a special game, but the researchers speculate the die was tossed into the street by a cheater trying to avoid getting caught, or by an angry opponent. For more on dice in the archaeological record, go to “No Dice Left Unturned.”

Genetic Study Offers New Thoughts on Sweet Potatoes

OXFORD, ENGLAND—According to a New York Times report, a new analysis of sweet potato DNA has determined neither where the tuber was first domesticated, nor when it arrived in the Pacific, but it does suggests that humans had nothing to do with its spread around the world. Botanist Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez of the University of Oxford and his colleagues collected samples of Ipomoea batatas and its wild relatives from around the world. They then sequenced the DNA of the samples using powerful tools. The study suggests the modern sweet potato has one wild ancestor, which most closely resembled today’s wild Ipomoea trifida, a plant with an inedible, pencil-thick root found in the Caribbean. The researchers said the ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida some 800,000 years ago. The team members also studied eighteenth-century samples of sweet potato leaves collected in Polynesia by Captain Cook’s crew and stored in London’s Natural History Museum. Muñoz-Rodríguez said those tubers were different from the other samples, and had split from other sweet potatoes some 111,000 years ago. People are thought to have only reached the remote Pacific islands in the last few thousand years, so the tubers may have gotten to them by floating on the ocean’s waters, or by being carried in small quantities by birds. For more on Polynesia, go to “Letter From Hawaii: Inside Kauai's Past.”

Wednesday, April 11

Cache of Meroitic Texts Recovered in Sudan

KHARTOUM, SUDAN—Live Science reports that a cache of Meroitic funerary texts has been found at the Sedeinga necropolis in Sudan. Meroitic is the oldest known written language from south of the Sahara. It borrows characters from the ancient Egyptian language, but is not fully understood. Archaeologist Vincent Francigny of the French Archaeological Unit Sudan Antiquities Service explained that although scholars can translate much of the known funerary texts written in Meroitic, there are so few Meroitic texts overall that each one has the potential to yield new information. “Every text tells a story—the name of the deceased and both parents, with their occupations sometime[s]; their career in the administration of the kingdom, including place names; their relation to extended family with prestigious titles,” Francigny said. To read in-depth about excavations at Sedeinga, go to “Miniature Pyramids of Sudan.”

1,500-Year-Old Onion Discovered in Sweden

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—According to a report in The Local, a burned lump recovered near a fireplace at Sandby Borg on the island of Öland is a 1,500-year-old onion. However, archaeologist Helena Victor explained that onions were not grown in Scandinavia at the time. She thinks the vegetable may have been imported from the Roman Empire as an exotic vegetable. “An onion doesn’t sound very interesting,” Victor said, but she notes that the next-oldest onion to have been found in Scandinavia dated to A.D. 650. The inhabitants of Sandby Borg were killed and the settlement burned by unknown attackers. Victor suggests imported items such as the onion, as well as Roman gold rings and coins found in the ancient ring fort, may have been a motive for the massacre. To read in-depth about the massacre at Sandby Borg, go to “Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480.”

Additional Fragments of Colossus Found in Cairo

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that an excavation in the ancient city of Heliopolis has uncovered thousands of fragments of a colossal statue of King Psamtek I, who ruled in the seventh century B.C. This discovery adds to the more than 6,000 pieces of the statue, which had been deliberately destroyed, that were recovered last year. “The new fragments confirm that the colossus once depicted King Psamtek I standing, but it also reveals that his left arm was held in front of the body, an unusual feature,” said Ayman Ashmawy of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. “A very carefully carved scene on the back pillar shows the kneeling King Psamtek I in front of the creator-god Atum of Heliopolis.” The quartzite colossus was part of a temple dating back to Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.) that had been remodeled by later pharaohs until it was eventually dismantled in the tenth or eleventh century A.D. Fragments of a frieze of falcons and a colossal red granite sphinx were among the objects recovered from the temple ruins. To read about another recent Egyptological discovery, go to “We Are Family.”