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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, July 15

New Dates Push Back Occupation of South Australia

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by Flinders University, researchers from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization and Waikato University radiocarbon dated shell middens in South Australia, and determined that a site in the Riverland region was occupied as early as 29,000 years ago. Researchers from Flinders University and the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC) note that the new dates push back the history of habitation in the area by 22,000 years. Other sites in the region were dated to as early as 15,000 years ago. The climate at the time was colder and drier, with sand dunes advancing on the floodplains of the Murray River and salt accumulation in the valley. The study thus offers new information on how Aboriginal ancestors survived times of hardship and plenty, added Fiona Giles of RMMAC. For more on Australian archaeology, go to "Around the World: Australia."

Restoration of Sicily’s Temple of Zeus Continues

AGRIGENTO, SICILY—The Guardian reports that the ruins of a 26-foot-tall sculpture of Atlas dated to the fifth century B.C. will be reinstalled at the Greek Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, a city once inhabited by as many as 100,000 people. According to Greek mythology, Atlas, a Titan, was forced to carry the sky on his shoulders after he was defeated by the Olympian Zeus. As many as 40 such statues of Atlas may have stood at the temple, which is thought to have been unfinished when the city was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 406 B.C. “The idea is to reposition one of these Atlases in front of the temple, so that it may serve as a guardian of the structure dedicated to the father of the gods,” said park director Roberto Sciarratta. To read about the search for the Greek theater at Agrigento, go to "Sicily's Lost Theater."

15th-Century Palace Flooring Unearthed in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—BBC News reports that basalt slabs thought to have been part of a courtyard floor at the palace of the Aztec ruler Axayácatl have been found near Mexico City’s central plaza by researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Axayácatl, the father of Montezuma, ruled from A.D. 1469 to 1481. The palace floor surface lay several feet below evidence of a house where Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is thought to have resided after the fall of the Aztec empire in 1521. The researchers suggest that the Aztec palace was razed by the conquistadors who then reused its materials to build the dwelling for Cortés. The Nacional Monte de Piedad, a pawnshop built in 1755, currently stands on the site. For more on the Aztec city that Cortés encountered, go to "Under Mexico City."

Tuesday, July 14

CT Scan of Siberian Mummy Reveals Wounds and Tattoos

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that scientists at Russia’s State Hermitage Museum have taken a CT scan of a mummified head dated to between the third and fourth centuries A.D. Discovered in 1969 in a burial house made of larch logs in the Oglakhty burial ground, the masked mummy head belongs to the Tashtyk culture of Siberia’s Yenisei River Valley. “The computer scan allowed us to see, so to say, three layers—the layer of the mask, the layer of the face without the mask, and the layer of the skull,” said museum curator Svetlana Pankova. The scan revealed brown hair and a sutured wound beneath the gypsum death mask, which was painted red with black stripes. The scar, which travels from the left eye to the left ear, is thought to have been sewn after death, perhaps to repair a wound so that the mask would fit properly. Pankova said there is also a hole in the left side of the mummy’s skull, which is also thought to have been made after death in order to remove the brain and prepare the body for burial. “Expert analysis shows the hole was made by a series of blows with a chisel type or hammer type tool,” she explained. The scan also revealed the presence of tattoos on the body, the first to be found on a Tashtyk mummy. To read about tattoos adorning mummified members of the Pazyryk culture uncovered in Siberia, go to "Ancient Tattoos: Iron Age Mummy."

1.4-Million-Year-Old Bone Hand Ax Identified

TOKYO, JAPAN—According to a Science News report, paleoanthropologists Katsuhiro Sano of Tohoku University and Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo have identified a 1.4-million-year-old hand ax made from a hippo’s leg bone at Ethiopia’s Konso-Gardula site. Tools at the site are thought to have been crafted by the human ancestor Homo erectus. The study suggests that the ax's oval shape was crafted by striking off the leg bone with one blow from a stone or bone hammer, and then chipped into its final shape with additional blows. Wear on the ax indicates it was used to cut or saw. The researchers explained that when combined with the variety of stone tools recovered from other Homo erectus sites in East Africa, the bone hand ax suggests that Homo erectus technology could have been more sophisticated and versatile than previously thought. To read about the recent find of the last known members of Homo erectus, go to "Around the World: Indonesia."

Finds Spanning 4,000 Years Unearthed in Southeast England

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that an excavation in southeast England under the direction of archaeologist Rachel Wood, ahead of the construction of a high-speed railway line, has uncovered evidence of occupation spanning a 4,000-year period. The finds include traces of a Neolithic wooden henge whose features are aligned with the winter solstice, and the 2,000-year-old remains of a man who was buried face down with his hands bound behind his back. Wood thinks he may have been murdered. “We hope our osteologists will be able to shed more light on this potentially gruesome death,” she said. In addition to the Iron Age skeleton, the project has uncovered a gold coin dated to about 100 B.C., and a Roman-era lead coffin that also contained a skeleton. This coffin probably had a wooden outer layer, Wood added. To read about Neolithic henges and other features spanning 6,000 years of history that were unearthed during the A14 roadway project in Cambridgeshire, go to "Letter from England: Building a Road Through History."

Monday, July 13

Denver Museum Returns 30 Carvings to Kenya

DENVER, COLORADO—The Denver Post reports that the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has repatriated 30 wooden carvings to the Mijikenda people of Kenya and northern Tanzania. The museum received the carvings as a gift in 1991, according to Stephen Nash, the museum’s director of anthropology and senior curator of archaeology, but are now thought to have been looted. The long, rectangular carvings with round heads, known as vigango, memorialize members of the community who have died and are thought to embody their spirits. “Once we realized that we were curating the physical embodiment of 30 dead people’s souls, that’s when we said ‘Look, the Mijikenda never had a chance for informed consent like you and I enjoy when disposing of our loved ones. We should not be curating people’s souls,” Nash said. The original site where the vigango stood is not known. To read about a monumental cemetery in northwest Kenya where nomadic herders buried their dead some 5,000 years ago, go to "Nomadic Necropolis."

1,000-Year-Old Buffalo Jump Discovered in Wyoming

RAWLINS, WYOMING—The Casper Star Tribune reports that a Wyoming man took state archaeologist Spencer Pelton to the site of a buffalo jump he and a friend found as teenagers some 30 years ago while out hiking. Pelton said the Ogburn-Golden Bison Jump, which has been named after the teens, is between 1,000 to 1,500 years old. “This particular site is—the best way to put it is that there is no way that bison bone would have ended up where it was without humans having a role in it. These bison bones are perched up on some pretty steep, cliffy areas, and it is not in a place where you would expect an animal to die naturally,” he explained. Driving the buffalo up the steep embankment and confining them there would have made them easier targets for hunters traveling on foot and equipped with bows and arrows. Stone points have been found among the bones, Pelton added. The people who hunted here, he said, lived in semipermanent seasonal camps and had a trade network that extended to the Pacific Ocean. To read about excavations at a buffalo jump in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, go to "A Removable Feast."

String Marks Detected on 120,000-Year-Old Painted Shells

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Microscopic examination of five 120,000-year-old clamshells unearthed in Israel’s Qafzeh Cave detected striations around naturally occurring holes near their tops, according to an Ars Technica report. Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer of Tel Aviv University and her colleagues suggest the marks indicate the shells once hung on a string. Additional wear around the edges of the shells may have been caused by the shells rubbing against each other. Four of the shells also retained traces of red ochre. The team members created their own shell jewelry and experimented with strings made from different kinds of fibers. They found that the marks left by string made with flax matched the marks on the prehistoric shells. Because 160,000-year-old shells from Israel’s Misliya Cave do not carry similar marks, Bar-Yosef Mayer and her colleagues suggest string was invented sometime between 160,000 and 120,000 years ago. The invention of string, she explained, would have led to raft-building, fishing nets, and more complicated animal traps, clothing, and bags. It is still not clear, however, if string was invented by modern humans or Neanderthals, she concluded. To read about Paleolithic stone balls found in Qesem Cave that wear analyses indicate were shaped by humans, go to "Around the World: Israel."