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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, October 29

Nineteenth-Century Dock Spotted in England

ESSEX, ENGLAND—According to a Press Association report, a team of researchers led by Dan Atkinson of Wessex Archaeology has found traces of a nineteenth-century dock in the mud flats of the River Roach in southeast England using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and multispectral images taken with a camera affixed to a drone. The multispectral survey employed different wavelengths of light to analyze differences in plant growth, since buried remains can affect the health of vegetation, Atkinson explained. Historians think the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried renowned naturalist Charles Darwin around the world between 1831 and 1836, may have been dismantled at the dock sometime after 1870. Atkinson said most ship materials would have been repurposed, but pieces of vessels, an oyster fishery, or other structures may remain at the site. No evidence of HMS Beagle itself has been found, he added. To read about the remains of a Portuguese church that Darwin may have visited, go to "World Roundup: Cape Verde."

Study Suggests Wine Was Not Always Reserved for Celtic Elites

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Cosmos Magazine reports that traces of Mediterranean wine have been found in vessels recovered in different areas of the Heuneberg site, which dates to around 500 to 700 B.C. and is located in southwest Germany. Maxime Rageot of the University of Tübingen tested 126 ceramic vessels used by different social classes that had been made locally, and detected chemicals produced by fermented grapes in them. Dairy and millet were also detected in the same vessels, she added. Because no evidence of grape seeds or wine production from the period has been found in central Europe, the wine is thought to have been imported. Fermented beverages made from other plants and honey may have been produced locally, however. Rageot and her colleagues also tested seven goblets, beakers, bowls, jugs, and bottles imported from Greece at the end of the period, and noted that by this time, wine drinking appeared to have been restricted to the elites. The researchers suggest the Celts may have eventually adopted Mediterranean-style feasting practices in addition to Mediterranean wine. To read about the Celts' penchant for Mediterranean wine, go to "Tomb of a Highborn Celt," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2015.

Was Medieval Tapestry Custom Made for Bayeux Cathedral?

YORK, ENGLAND—Art historian Christopher Norton of the University of York has suggested that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned within a few years of the Norman conquest of England in A.D. 1066 to hang in France’s Bayeux Cathedral, according to a Live Science report. Images on the artwork, which is thought to have been commissioned by Bishop Odo, a half-brother of William the Conqueror, and stitched by women in England, depict the exploits of the first Norman king of England and his victory at the Battle of Hastings. Norton examined documentary evidence, surviving architectural details of the church, published data on the tapestry’s measurements, and information on medieval cloth sizes. He says the physical and narrative structure of the 230-foot-long tapestry’s embroidered linen strips are perfectly adapted to the north, south, and west sides of the cathedral’s main, central section, allowing for the church’s choir screen, doorways, and architectural supports, and shrinkage and missing sections of the tapestry. The tapestry first appeared in the Bayeux Cathedral’s inventory in 1476. To read about a fortress built after the Norman invasion of England, go to "Inside the Anarchy."

Monday, October 28

Spanish Armor Plate Discovered in North Carolina

SWANNANOA, NORTH CAROLINA—A team of researchers led by David Moore of Warren Wilson College has found a small piece of plate armor at Fort San Juan, a well-preserved fort built by Spanish soldiers some 450 years ago on the site of the Catawba town of Joara in what is now western North Carolina, according to a Blue Ridge Public Radio report. Moore said the soldiers took over the town and forced the Catawba to build homes and cook meals for them. “So this relationship of two groups understanding each other very poorly, trying to figure out what to do with the other was constantly in the air,” he explained. The small piece of plate armor, which would have been sewn into a garment, had been placed vertically in the soil next to a post in a Spanish soldier’s house. Moore thinks it may have served as a talisman against black magic. “A Spanish soldier had placed this in the building to ward off witches, especially because Indian women were feeding them,” he said. Excavators also found other artifacts from Joara and the fort, including a Spanish clothing hook fastener and a Native American clay pipe. To read about a rare example of indigenous cartography from the colonial period, go to "Mapping the Past: Catawba Map."

Quarrying Volcanic Rock Enriched Easter Island’s Soils

SEWANEE, TENNESSEE—Science News reports that the weathering of volcanic rock at the site of Easter Island’s major rock quarry enriched the surrounding soil with phosphorus and other elements crucial for the growth of crops. Sarah Sherwood of the University of the South said radiocarbon dating of burned wood and plant material recovered from the quarry’s slopes suggests that the Rapa Nui began to farm there between A.D. 1495 and 1585, when soil quality deteriorated on other parts of the island. Microscopic plant remains in the soils indicate that Rapa Nui farmers grew sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, paper mulberry fruit, and perhaps bottle gourd in the enriched soil. Twenty-one partially buried monolithic statues known as moai have also been found on the quarry’s slopes. Jo Anne Van Tilburg of the University of California, Los Angeles, has investigated the backs of two of these statues and found that they were carved with crescent shapes and other figures before they were placed in pits packed with gravel to hold them upright. She thinks the statues may have been used in ceremonies to encourage crop growth. To read more about the Rapa Nui people's adaptation to Easter Island's harsh conditions, go to "World Roundup: Chile."

New Thoughts on Neanderthal Tool Technology

GRONINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS—According to a BBC News report, researchers including Marcel Niekus of Stichting STONE/Foundation for Stone Age Research suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex thinking, based upon adhesive made from birch tar discovered on a Neanderthal stone tool. The well-preserved tool was discovered in Doggerland, in what would have been an icy tundra with few trees in an area now covered by the waters of the North Sea. Such adhesive requires more than 80 pounds of wood to produce, Niekus said. “They also had to invest time and energy in building the fire and extracting the tar,” he explained. Birch tar is usually thought to have been used to attach wooden handles to stone tools. The tar on this small tool, however, may have been used to improve the user’s grip and help prevent cuts to the user’s hands while cutting plant fibers or scraping animal skins. “With the investment in time needed, you would expect them only to do it with special hunting weapons,” Niekus said, “but they did it with special domestic tools as well. We think the use of birch tar was quite widespread.” For more, go to "Neanderthal Tool Time."

Friday, October 25

Well-Preserved Byzantine Church Uncovered in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Deutsche Welle reports that traces of a well-preserved 1,500-year-old Christian church were uncovered during a construction project to the west of Jerusalem by a team of archaeologists led by Benjamin Storchan of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Storchan said the mosaic floors in the structure depict fruit, plants, and birds, including an eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine Empire. The church’s marble chancel and a baptismal font made of calcite flowstone were also found. An inscription in the courtyard dedicated the building to an unidentified “glorious martyr” thought to have been buried in an intact crypt under the church. Storchan said the opulence of the church suggests the martyr was an important figure in Christianity. Another inscription indicates that Emperor Tiberius II Constantinus contributed to the completion of the building. Pilgrims are thought to have visited the site until its entrances were sealed with heavy stones and it was abandoned in the ninth century A.D., during the Muslim Abbasid caliphate. To read about other Greek mosaic inscriptions unearthed in Byzantine churches, go to "Gods of the Galilee." 

Herculaneum House Conserved and Reopened to Public

NAPLES, ITALY—According to a Reuters report, Herculaneum’s House of the Bicentenary, a lavish three-story property boasting more than 6,000 square feet of living space, has reopened following extensive conservation. Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife Calantonia Themis lived in the House of the Bicentenary, which is located on the main street of the ancient Roman town buried by about 50 feet of volcanic ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Herculaneum was smaller than Pompeii, which is located about ten miles to the south, but is thought to have been inhabited by wealthier Romans. Archaeologist Domenico Camardo of the Herculaneum Conservation Project said a sliding wooden grill, placed at the entrance to the building, survived the disaster. The house, discovered in 1938 and named after the 200th anniversary of the first excavations in the ancient city, was closed to the public in 1983 for restoration and repair, including the removal of a coating that had been applied to its frescoes which had caused the paint to flake. “It was an occasion to develop new, innovative materials and methods for conservation that can be used in the site and elsewhere,” the Getty Conservation Institute's Leslie Rainer explained. To read more about Herculaneum's frescoes, go to "Putting on a New Face."

Medieval Scotsman’s Face Reconstructed

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that researchers from AOC Archaeology Group have reconstructed the face of a man whose 600-year-old remains were uncovered during a construction project in northeastern Scotland’s city of Aberdeen. Examination of his bones revealed he was over the age of 46 at the time of death, stood shorter than most men of the time period, and suffered from extensive dental disease. The chemical composition of his bones suggests he grew up in Scotland’s northwest Highlands, or on one of the Outer Hebrides islands. For more on facial reconstruction, go to "Neolithic FaceTime."