Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, February 12

Model Tracks Spread of Megaliths Across Europe

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN—A new statistical model developed by Bettina Schulz Paulsson of the University of Gothenburg suggests that huge stone structures were first built in what is now northwestern France some 6,800 years ago, and that megalithic construction styles spread across Europe in three waves, according to a Science News report. Paulsson processed 2,410 radiocarbon dates obtained from megalith sites and even older graves and earthen monuments to develop a timeline for when 154 different megalith sites were built. She said the model indicates the first structures, which consisted of two or more standing stones topped with a third stone or a mound of earth, spread from northwest France down the Atlantic coast and into the Mediterranean, perhaps by sailors who traveled long distances and shared their style of building with the people they met along the way. The construction of passage graves, which are now found along the coastlines of Portugal, Spain, Ireland, England, Scotland, France, and Scandinavia, are thought to have been spread by seafaring traders between 6,000 and 5,500 years ago. The final phase of the spread of megalithic structures included the construction of monuments such as Stonehenge with massive boulders some 4,400 years ago, Paulsson said. For more, go to “Quarrying Stonehenge.”

Human Remains Discovered Near Egypt’s Meidum Pyramid

CAIRO, EGYPT—According to a Live Science report, human remains have been uncovered in a cemetery near the 4,600-year-old Meidum pyramid by a team of archaeologists led by Omar Zaki of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. Initially constructed as a step pyramid by the Pharaoh Huni, who ruled from around 2599 to 2575 B.C., the Meidum pyramid was later given smooth sides by the pharaoh Snefru, who reigned from around 2575 to 2551 B.C. The pyramid has since partially collapsed, but is thought to have once stood more than 300 feet tall. The body is thought to have belonged to a young girl who was about 13 years old when she died, although archaeologists say it is not clear when she was buried. She was placed in the grave without any grave goods. Traces of what may have been a brick wall surrounding the cemetery were also uncovered, along with the remains of what may be two bulls’ heads and three small ceramic vessels. The artifacts may have been funerary offerings, but the archaeologists have not been able to link them to a specific burial. To read in-depth about excavations at the ancient Egyptian sacred site of Heliopolis, go to “Egypt's Eternal City.”

Terracotta Fragment in Bulgaria May Depict Roman Emperor

VARNA, BULGARIA—The Sofia Globe reports that a piece of a terracotta sculpture dating to the sixth century A.D. has been unearthed at an early Christian monastery site near the Black Sea. The figure is thought to have been part of a mask or bust portraying a Roman emperor, according to Vassil Tenekedzhiev of the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Tenekedzhiev said researchers may attempt to reconstruct the entire face. Foundations of columns, parts of an archway, and fragments of water supply pipes were also uncovered at the site. To read about the discovery of a bronze index finger thought to belong to a sculpture of the Roman emperor Constantine, go to “Hand Picked.”

800-Year-Old Shipwreck Porcelain Analyzed

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Cosmos Magazine reports that a team of researchers from the University of Illinois and The Field Museum have used portable X-ray fluorescence technology to analyze the chemical compositions of 800-year-old porcelain vessels recovered from a shipwreck in the Java Sea in the 1990s. Based upon their style, the more than 100,000 pieces of porcelain were thought to have been made at four specific kiln-complexes in southeastern China. The scientists measured the glazes and pastes on 129 porcelain pieces for levels of 13 elements, including magnesium, phosphorus, lead, silver, and cadmium, and compared the results with data obtained from different types of pottery fragments at various kiln-complex sites. They found that the mix of elements in the glazes were enough to confirm that the pieces had indeed been crafted at the four kiln-complexes the archaeologists had identified based on their initial visual inspections. To read about a molded box found at the site of the same shipwreck, go to “Artifact.”

Monday, February 11

Did Carthage Fight With Captured Roman Warships?

TAMPA, FLORIDA—According to a Live Science report, members of the RPM Nautical Foundation recently conducted an underwater survey in the Mediterranean Sea at the site of a naval battle that took place some 2,200 years ago. Historical records indicate the Roman navy destroyed much of the Carthaginian fleet, which had been carrying supplies to its armies in Sicily, on March 10, 241 B.C. The researchers recovered helmets, pottery, and six bronze rams. Research team member William Murray of the University of South Florida thinks the Carthaginians may have been fighting with Roman ships captured during a previous battle, since most of the rams recovered from the sea floor over the course of the survey project have been Roman. “You would expect that the Carthaginians, who lost the battle, would have suffered the most casualties,” he explained. The helmets may have belonged to mercenaries from Gaul and Iberia hired to man the Carthaginian fleet, he added. The team members also recovered amphoras scattered around the shipwrecks. “It’s as if they were jettisoned out into the sea, and they separated one from another and then sank to the seafloor,” Murray said. Throwing the containers overboard may have been an attempt by the Carthaginians to make the ships lighter and faster, he said. To read more about Rome's mastery of the Mediterranean, go to “Rome's Imperial Port.”

Smuggled Ancient Egyptian Statue Recovered

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—Ahram Online reports that an ancient limestone statue confiscated by Dutch police has been handed over to the Egyptian embassy in Amsterdam. Shaaban Abdel Gawad of the Antiquities Repatriation Department of the Ministry of Antiquities said the statue was noticed by Egyptian authorities when it was put on display in Holland last year. Hieroglyphs carved on the sculpture identify it as an official named Nekaw-Ptah, who is shown standing and wearing a short wig. The inscription also indicates that Nekaw-Ptah lived during the First Intermediate Period, which spanned about 125 years beginning at the end of the Old Kingdom period, around 2181 B.C. Egyptian officials say the statue was looted from the Saqqara necropolis in the 1990s. To read in-depth about recent excavations in Egypt, go to "Egypt's Eternal City."  

Did Bone Marrow Fuel Hominin Brain Development?

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT—According to a report in Cosmos Magazine, Jessica Thompson of Yale University and her colleagues suggest that brain growth in early hominins may have been fueled by nutrient-rich, fatty bone marrow scavenged from large-animal carcasses left behind by other predators. These early human ancestors living some four million years ago would have been able to access the marrow by smashing the bones with rocks, Thompson explains. She thinks once hominins developed a taste for marrow, they may have craved it and other fatty foods. In this scenario, the craving for more calories and fat could have driven hominins to develop tools and techniques to hunt large animals. Thompson suggests that paleoanthropologists look for evidence of bone-smashing behavior by our earliest ancestors. To read more about the evolution of early human ancestors, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah." 

Shell Jewelry Manufacturing Site Excavated in India

AHMEDABAD, INDIA—The Times of India reports that traces of the industrial production of conch shell bangles and beads have been unearthed in western India’s state of Gujarat. Abhijit Ambekar of the Archaeological Survey of India and his colleagues suggest people living in the region recovered Turbinella pyrum shells from the Gulf of Kutch and fashioned them into intricately carved bangles and beads, inlays, and rings as early as the first or second century A.D. The industry is thought to have peaked in the fifth century, and continued into the medieval period. The finished jewelry is thought to have been traded to the east and the south, where similar bangles have been found. The excavation also recovered a stone tablet engraved with a conch motif dating to about the fifth century A.D. To read about another recent discovery, go to "India's Anonymous Artists." 

Friday, February 8

Possible Source of Ancient Earthquake Examined

ROME, ITALY—According to a Nature report, Paolo Galli of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection led a team of researchers who searched the 18-mile-long Mount Vettore fault in the central Apennine Mountains for evidence of past earthquakes. They found soil disturbances suggesting that the fault generated six earthquakes measuring greater than magnitude 6.5 over the past 9,000 years. One of those events may have been an earthquake recorded by historians in A.D. 443, which damaged the Colosseum and other buildings in Rome. The most recent earthquakes caused by the fault occurred in 2016, killing some 300 people. To read about a theory of how an earthquake may have affected ancient Chinese history, go to “Seismic Shift.”

Human Remains Unearthed Near Fort William Henry

LAKE GEORGE, NEW YORK— reports that scattered human remains were uncovered at a construction site in the Adirondacks, near Fort William Henry, which was built by the British in 1755, during the French and Indian War. In 1757, the French laid siege to and destroyed the fort, which was situated on the southern edge of Lake George. Archaeologist David Starbuck of Plymouth State University said the bones are those of a European-American. “I suspect there could easily be hundreds of unmarked graves in this town,” Starbuck said. For more on archaeology in the area, go to “Lake George's Unfinished Fort.”

Turquoise Mines Excavated in Northern China

URUMQI, CHINA—Xinhua reports that a cluster of turquoise mining sites covering an area of about three square miles has been studied in northwest China, close to the route of the ancient Silk Road. Archaeologists from the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, Northwest University in Xi’an City, Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, and Beijing Science and Technology University have uncovered industrial areas that were used for processing tools and separating minerals, and separate living areas. Pottery, bronze, stone, and bone artifacts have been found, in addition to textiles and animal products. Analysis of the artifacts indicates the mine was in use during the Spring and Autumn Period, from around 770 to 475 B.C., and the Warring States Period, from around 475 to 221 B.C. To read about another discovery in China, go to “Tomb Couture.”