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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, April 4

Bronze Age Fort Identified Off Ireland’s West Coast

COUNTY MAYO, IRELAND—The Irish Independent reports that an island in Clew Bay may actually be the remains of a large Bronze Age fort. Archaeologist Michael Gibbons said that several large ramparts faced with limestone blocks are visible on the tidal isthmus linking the island of Collanmore to Ireland’s west coast during very low tides, when the island is accessible by foot. But, he added, the structures are covered with seaweed, and are hidden from site during high tides. The structures were known to locals, he noted, who were not aware of their age or significance. “We were lucky on the day as there were men cutting seaweed in the same area,” he said. Gibbons explained that the fort was probably strategically important between 1100 and 900 B.C. “Similar ramparts are visible at a number of other coastal and lake promontory forts throughout the west of Ireland,” he said. “They were built by warlord dominated societies and we have very good evidence they were in active use during periods of warfare between various tribes.” To read about sites in western Ireland where people began to farm and raise animals some 3,500 years ago, go to "Off the Grid: Rathcroghan, Ireland."

Sandstone Object Found on South African Coast May Depict a Stingray

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—IFL Science reports that an evaluation of a sandstone object discovered in 2018 on South Africa’s coastline suggests that it may be an image of a stingray, a creature native to Africa’s southern coast. Optically stimulated luminescence dating indicates that the sand forming the stone, whose surface is about 14 inches long and 12 inches wide, was last exposed to sunlight some 130,000 years ago. To test the object’s resemblance to a stingray, a team of researchers led by Charles Helm of Nelson Mandela University laid images of a blue stingray (Dasyatis chrysonata) on it and found that the two closely matched in size and proportion, except for the tail, which is missing from the artifact. Helm and his colleagues think the object could have been formed when an early human came across a stranded stingray on the beach and traced around it in the sand. “This is the first and thus far the only example that suggests tracing from this time period,” Helm said. “The chances of something like this being preserved and amenable to our interpretation are remote, so it is possible that this may be the only example ever identified, but we can always hope that more will become apparent,” he concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Rock Art Research. To read about the earliest known rock art, go to "World's First Artists," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2021.

Medieval Papal Seal Recovered in Poland

WEST POMERANIA, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that a third medieval seal has been found in northwestern Poland. This lead seal was discovered by a group of metal detectorists looking for World War II artifacts. The preserved letters and iconography on the seal suggest that it was used to sign papal bulls, or decrees issued by the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The name on the seal is incomplete, but researchers from the Kamień Land History Museum estimate that the seal is about 650 years old. The popes who ruled between 1303 and 1352 include Benedict XI, Clement V, Benedict XII, and Clement VI. The seal may have been transported to the site with dirt from another location during road construction, or it may have been discarded at the side of the road as the bull was being transported to fourteenth-century bishops who lived in a castle about seven miles away. To read about the popes depicted on late medieval coins found in a box uncovered beneath a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century house in France, go to "A Catalog of Princes."

Researchers Review Viking Body Modifications

MÜNSTER, GERMANY—Matthias Toplak and Lukas Kerk of the Viking Museum Haithabu and the University of Münster examined filed teeth and deformed skulls found in Viking Age burials on the Swedish island of Gotland, which is located in the Baltic Sea, according to a Newsweek report. Vikings may have also had tattoos, piercings, scarification, or hair and beard styles to signal affiliation with certain social, religious, or cultural groups, the researchers explained, but these forms of body modification do not survive in archaeological contexts. In all, more than 130 men buried in the cemetery between the late eighth and eleventh centuries were found to have horizontal grooves in their teeth. The researchers suggest that the teeth filings may have been used as a rite of initiation into a social group of men, perhaps a closed group of merchants that offered commercial advantages, protection, or other privileges. Meanwhile, the skull modifications were only found on women’s remains, and may have signaled beauty, social status, or membership in a particular group. These women may even have come to Gotland from southeastern Europe, perhaps through trading networks, Toplak and Kerk explained. Two of the three women were buried with more jewelry than is usually found in women’s burials in the region, they added, and these artifacts may reflect their prestige. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Current Swedish Archaeology. For more about the Vikings of Gotland, go to "Hoards of the Vikings."

Wednesday, April 3

Two New Substances Found in Neolithic Pottery

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—According to a statement released by Koç University, a team of researchers led by Adrià Breu Barcons and Rana Özbal of Koç University analyzed pottery recovered from Neolithic sites in the Mediterranean region. “We had some samples with some residues we didn’t really understand,” Barcons said. “We thought maybe they were coming from cooking techniques that thermally alter fat,” she explained. To test this hypothesis, the researchers mixed organic ingredients like olive oil and olive leaves with pottery samples and heated them at different temperatures for various durations. In doing so, they were able to recreate the mysterious residues and record them as two new biomarkers. “These compounds are not normally found in nature and can only be created in high temperature, which means they can be used to prove whether ancient pottery had been in contact with the fire,” Barcons concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Journal of Archaeological Science. To read about an innovative method for directly dating animal fat residues on ancient pottery, go to "Carbon Dating Pottery," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2020.

Remains of George Washington’s Relatives Identified

WASHINGTON, D.C.—CNN reports that DNA analysis has identified skeletal remains of George Washington’s grandnephews, Samuel Walter Washington and George Steptoe Washington, Jr., and their mother, Lucy Payne Washington. George Washington’s younger brother Samuel and several generations of his kin were first buried in a cemetery at Harewood, his estate in Charles Town, West Virginia. But some of the bodies were later moved, leaving a few bones behind in unmarked graves. Courtney L. Cavagnino of the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and her colleagues compared samples taken from degraded skeletal remains in the Harewood cemetery with DNA from a known living descendant of Samuel Washington. They used several types of analysis, including Y chromosome DNA analysis to investigate the paternal line; mitochondrial DNA analysis to investigate the maternal line; and a new technique developed to analyze thousands of data points on a single nucleotide, or building block of DNA, to assess more distant relationships. Cavagnino said that the comparison between the living descendant and the three buried relatives predicted relationships one degree closer than had been anticipated, but she and her colleagues determined that this was due to cross-cousin marriages among the Washingtons. The technique could eventually be used to identify the remains of service members lost around the world. Read the original scholarly article about this research in iScience. To read about artifacts recovered from the site of a 1754 battle in which a young Washington led British troops, go to "Around the World: Pennsylvania."

Prehistoric Campsite Discovered in New Mexico

ALAMOGORDO, NEW MEXICO—KTSM reports that an 8,200-year-old campsite has been discovered on Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico. The site, known as Gomolak Overlook, has been protected by windblown silt and the formation of sand dunes, said 49th CES cultural resource manager Matthew Cuba. “This site marks a pivotal moment in shedding light on the area’s history and its early inhabitants,” he added. In all, some 400 archaeological sites are known in the region. “The Department of Defense’s stewardship of vast tracts of land, including areas between White Sands National Park and Holloman, inadvertently protects numerous documented and undocumented archaeological resources,” explained Scott Dorton, 49th CES environmental chief. To read about fossilized footprints uncovered in the New Mexico desert, go to "Ghost Tracks of White Sands."

Evidence for Domesticated Chickens Dated to 400 B.C.

JENA, GERMANY—A study of eggshell fragments unearthed at 12 archaeological sites located along the Silk Road corridor in Central Asia suggests that domesticated chickens were kept there as early as 400 B.C., according to a Cosmos Magazine report. The eggshells were analyzed by a team of researchers led by Robert Spengler and Carli Peters of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology with ZooMS, or zooarchaeology by mass spectrometery, which identifies animal species through characteristic sequences of amino acids in protein collagen. So many ancient chicken eggshells were identified at these sites that Spengler, Peters, and their colleagues suggest that the birds must have been laying out of season. In contrast, the red jungle fowl, the ancestor of the domesticated chicken, lays just six eggs once a year, the researchers explained. They concluded that such prolific egg laying likely encouraged the spread of the domesticated chicken. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature Communications. For more on the domestication of chickens, go to "Fast Food."

Tuesday, April 2

Possible Medieval Helmet Recovered Off Sicily’s Coast

PALERMO, ITALY—The Miami Herald reports that a helmet thought to have been worn by an infantryman during the late medieval period or the early Renaissance has been found on the ocean floor off the southeastern coast of Sicily by researchers from the Superintendency of the Sea. The helmet is oval in shape with a ridge along its bottom edge and a crest across the top, in a style known as a cabasset, or a capacete in Spanish and Portuguese. It is not clear if the artifact was part of a shipwreck, or if it was lost on its own by a soldier at sea. The divers plan to return to the site for further investigation of the area. To read about a Byzantine shipwreck discovered off the Sicilian coast, go to "Shipping Stone."

Hominins Quarried Stone Near Animal Migration Routes

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—According to a Live Science report, a new study suggests that hominins who lived in what is now the Upper Galilee used local quarries to make tools for hunting and butchering elephants that visited nearby water sources between about two million and 500,000 years ago. Meir Finkel of Tel Aviv University said that elephants follow the same routes to reliable water sources because they each consume more than 100 gallons of it daily. Finkel and his colleagues examined such migration routes used by ancient elephants, based upon the landscape of the Upper Galilee and fossils analyzed in an earlier study, and determined that they corresponded with local hominin quarries. These quarries were also within walking distance of several Paleolithic sites, the researchers noted. But killing, butchering, and preserving such a large animal is a dangerous undertaking that draws other predators. The job would have had to have been completed quickly. Large quantities of suitable cutting tools would have been prepared in advance of the hunt, explained Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. “It was tradition: For hundreds of thousands of years, the elephants wandered along the same route, while humans produced stone tools nearby,” he concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Archaeologies. To read about the discovery of the remains of a mammoth that was butchered some 14,500 years ago in what is now Illinois, go to "America, in the Beginning: Schaefer and Hebior Kill Sites."

Roman and Medieval Artifacts Found at Slovakia Site

RIMAVSKÁ SOBOTA, SLOVAKIA—The Slovak Spectator reports that traces of a medieval settlement have been uncovered in south-central Slovakia. Archaeologists suggest the settlement may be Kľačany, known from a document dated to 1557. Kľačany had been in decline and is thought to have been abandoned due to Turkish raids. The excavation has also unearthed evidence that the site was occupied during the Roman era, such as furnaces for drying mud ore, metallurgical debris, and other semi-finished industrial products. A new industrial park will be constructed on the site. To read about excavations of an unusual mass grave in Vráble, Slovakia, go to "Neolithic Mass Grave Mystery."