Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 5

Polynesian Tattooing Implements Studied

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation News report, Geoffrey Clark of Australian National University and Michelle Langley of Griffith University examined a set of tattooing implements discovered on Tongatapu Island in the 1960s. It had been thought that the tools were lost in 2003, when bushfires destroyed the storage facility where they were being kept. Years later, Clark and Langley learned the tools had been removed from the facility for study before the fires. An inkpot originally found with the bone implements was not in the rediscovered collection, however. Recent radiocarbon dating indicates the tools were made 2,700 years ago, or at the beginning of Polynesian culture, Clark said. Two of the tools were made from the bones of seabirds, while the other two were made from the bones of a large mammal—likely from humans, Langley said, since no other large mammals are known to have lived on the island at that time. The bone fragments were sharpened into blade and comb shapes and fitted with handles. To create a tattoo, the tool would have been dipped in ink, then a second tool would have been used to tap it and drive the ink under the skin. Clark suggests the use of human bone in the tattooing process may have been a way of honoring ancestors. To read in-depth about tattoos in the archaeological record, go to “Ancient Tattoos.”

Archaeologists Explore Maya Cave at Chichen Itza

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—The Associated Press reports that Guillermo de Anda of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and his colleagues visited Balamku, a narrow underground cave situated nearly two miles from Chichen Itza’s main pyramid of Kukulkan, and found more than 150 ancient Maya vessels containing bone fragments and burned offerings of food, seeds, jade, and shells. The ceramic items include braziers and incense burners that bear the image of Tlaloc, a rain god noted for his mustache and blinders. The researchers suggest the offerings may have been intended to ask Tlaloc for rain during unusual periods of drought in the Late Classic (A.D. 700–800) and the Terminal Classic (A.D. 800–1000) periods. The exploration of Balamku is part of the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which is investigating Chichen Itza’s underground water system and searching Balamku for a possible connection to a cenote cave believed to rest under Kukulkan. The team members plan to create 3-D maps of the cave while leaving the artifacts in place. To read about another discovery in a cave on the Yucatan Peninsula, go to “Naia—the 13,000-Year-Old Native American.”

1,000-Year-Old Pagoda Foundation Uncovered in Vietnam

THANH HOA, VIETNAM—According to a Vietnam News Agency report, four layers of pagoda foundations have been uncovered on Xuan Dai Mountain, which is located in Vietnam’s north central coast region. The earliest construction is thought to date to the tenth century A.D. Pillars and tiles dating to the Tran Dynasty (1225–1400), glazed ceramic tiles from the Late Le Dynasty (1428–1527), and intricately carved pillars and metal nails from the Le Trung Hung Dynasty (1533–1789) were also found. Nguyen Duc Binh of the Vietnam Archaeology Institute said the pagoda was eventually dedicated to Princess Du Anh, daughter of King Tran Nghe Tong, who was successfully treated with herbs for an illness at the pagoda in the late fourteenth century. She is thought to have managed renovations of the building, including the additions of statues and a bell to the structure, which was then named for her. “As the excavation site is small, we still cannot see the whole scale of the structures,” Binh said. “The site needs to be further excavated in order to gather enough evidence and information for future preservation.” For more on archaeology in Southeast Asia, go to “Letter from Cambodia: Storied Landscape.”

Monday, March 4

Whalers’ Rock Art Recorded in Northwestern Australia

PERTH, AUSTRALIA—Live Science reports that Alistair Paterson of the University of Western Australia and his colleagues recorded rock art made by nineteenth-century American whalers on two of the islands in northwestern Australia’s Dampier Archipelago. The carvings, which include names, dates, ships’ names, and anchor motifs, were etched on top of existing aboriginal images, which had been created over thousands of years and are found on all 42 islands in the archipelago. Whalers from America, Great Britain, France, and colonial Australia stopped at the islands—sometimes for months at a time—while hunting sperm whales and migrating humpback whales. One engraving, on Rosemary Island, was dated 1841 by a sailor on a ship named Connecticut who carved over an indigenous grid pattern on the rock. Paterson said a second indigenous grid was later inscribed over the whaler’s carving. Because some areas of the rocks were still smooth and would have served as better engraving surfaces, Paterson suggests the whalers chose the locations for their carving deliberately, although he does not know what their rationale was. For more on archaeology in Australia, go to “Death by Boomerang.”

Nineteenth-Century Docks Unearthed in Scotland

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Archaeologists have unearthed sea defenses and docks built some 200 years ago at the port of Leith, located north of Edinburgh, according to a report in The Scotsman. The port was built to accommodate the increase in trade and shipping brought on by the Industrial Revolution. “The work on the first docks, which we have uncovered, was carried out in phases up until 1817 and included sea defenses built in response to the Napoleonic Wars,” said city council archaeologist John Lawson. Building plans for the area will be adapted to preserve many of the structures in situ. For more on archaeology in Scotland, go to “A Dangerous Island.”

Medieval Artifacts Uncovered in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—The Phnom Penh Post reports that Buddha statues, ceramic tiles, and other artifacts made of sandstone and metal were uncovered last week during construction work on the property of the Electricity Authority of Cambodia. The site is located near Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple first built in 1372 in Phnom Penh. “At this time, our experts still do not know when the archaeological artifacts were made,” said Chum Vuthy, director of Cambodia’s Fine Arts Department, “but it is likely to have been somewhere between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries because that location was originally an old cave before the construction of Wat Phnom.” For more on archaeology in Cambodia, go to “Angkor Urban Sprawl.”

Friday, March 1

Bronze Pot Unearthed in Central China Held “Elixir of Life”

ZHENGZHOU, CHINA—Archaeologist Pan Fusheng announced that the liquid discovered in a 2,000-year-old bronze pot in a tomb in central China may have been an “elixir of life,” as described in ancient Taoist literature, according to a Xinhua report. The tomb, which dates to the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – A.D. 8), covered more than 2,200 square feet, and also contained painted pottery, jade items, and other bronze artifacts, in addition to the remains of a noble occupant. Archaeologists noted right away that the approximately 3.5 quarts of liquid in the bronze pot smelled of alcohol. Later chemical analysis showed the substance contains potassium nitrate and alunite—the main ingredients in an immortality medicine mentioned in a Taoist text. To read in-depth about the Han period, go to “Reading the Yellow River.”

Spanish Researchers Begin New World Shipwreck List

MADRID, SPAIN—The Guardian reports that archaeologists Carlos León and Beatriz Domingo and naval historian Genoveva Enríquez have combed Spain’s archives and compiled a list of 681 Spanish ships lost off the coasts of Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Atlantic coast of the United States since 1492, when Christopher Columbus’ flagship, Santa María, sank off the coast of what is now Haiti. León said the objective of the project, which is sponsored by Spain’s Culture Ministry, is to help identify and protect shipwreck sites, especially those that have been lost from memory. “The most famous ships have been investigated,” he said, “but there’s a huge number about which we know absolutely nothing.” The researchers found that more than 90 percent of the ships sank in severe weather, about four percent ran onto reefs or had navigational problems; one percent were sunk during naval engagements with the British, Dutch, or United States; and less than one percent were sunk during pirate attacks. Fewer than 25 percent of these wrecks have been found to date, León added. The documents also revealed the ships headed toward the New World carried things like religious objects and stones for building churches; tons of mercury to extract gold and silver from New World ores; clothing for slaves; and weapons for putting down local rebellions. To read more about underwater archaeology, go to “History's 10 Greatest Wrecks.”

Neolithic Graves in Europe Hold Remains of Dogs and People

BARCELONA, SPAIN—AFP reports that Silvia Albizuri of the University of Barcelona has found evidence from at least four 6,000-year-old sites in northern Italy, southern France, and the northeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula that humans and dogs lived and worked together, and shared a diet based on grains and vegetables. The animals were even found in the graves of men, women, and children, she said, and were probably killed at the time of burial. A lack of cut marks on the bones suggests they were not butchered. About a quarter of the dogs in the burials were between 12 and 18 months old, perhaps because older, trained dogs were needed by the living for tasks such as hunting, transportation, protection, and herding. To read more about ancient dogs, go to “Denmark's Bog Dogs.”

New Thoughts on the Causes of Angkor’s Decline

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—According to a Science News report, analysis of sediments from the moat surrounding Cambodia’s Angkor Thom suggests its ruing elites gradually abandoned the medieval walled city, beginning in the early fourteenth century. It had been previously thought that the hundreds of thousands of residents who lived in the Greater Angkor region left suddenly in the mid-fifteenth century, perhaps due to a military defeat or catastrophic damage to the extensive water infrastructure system brought on by climate change. Geoscientist Dan Penny of the University of Sydney and his colleagues found that evidence of burning, forest disturbances, and soil erosion in the form of traces of plants, pollen, and minerals in the sediment cores decreased throughout the fourteenth century. At the same time, pollen from floating vegetation in the moat increased, indicating that the moat was not being maintained as it once had been. The rest of the city’s extensive water system may have also failed for lack of repairs, Penny said. He thinks the elites may have moved closer to the coastline to pursue profits in the sea trade, leaving the city vulnerable to decline and open to invasion. To read in-depth about archaeology in Cambodia, go to “Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape.”