Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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.”

Thursday, February 28

Nineteenth-Century Fortifications Found on Alcatraz Island

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK— reports that archaeologist Timothy de Smet of Binghamton University and his colleagues explored California’s Alcatraz Island with ground-penetrating radar and laser scans, and found traces of a nineteenth-century citadel. The researchers also employed georectifications, which link old, digitized maps to a coordinate system in order to locate remains of historic buildings. Many of the military structures built on the island after the War of 1812 were destroyed when a prison was constructed there in 1908, but de Smet and his team were able to find an earthwork traverse and its vaulted brick masonry tunnel and ventilation ducts, built in the 1860s, just under the surface of the prison’s recreation yard. They had been covered with just a thin layer of concrete, de Smet said. To read in-depth about a Civil War prison in Georgia, go to “Life on the Inside.”

2,000-Year-Old Tattoo Tool Identified

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Live Science reports that an object in storage at Washington State University has been identified as a 2,000-year-old tool used by ancestral Pueblo people living in what is now southeastern Utah to create tattoos. The nearly four-inch-long pen was made from two prickly pear cactus spines tied to a handle of skunkbush sumac with yucca-leaf strips. Andrew Gillreath-Brown of Washington State University analyzed its sharp, pointed ends with a scanning electron microscope and found that the black stains contain carbon, which is often used as pigment. He also attempted to create tattoos with a replica pen on fresh pig skin. The tool pushes back evidence for the practice of tattooing in western North America by more than 1,000 years, Gillreath-Brown said. Similar implements have been found in Arizona and New Mexico, but the oldest has been dated to between A.D. 1100 and 1280. To read in-depth about evidence of tattooing in the archaeological record, go to “Ancient Tattoos.”

New Dates for Shellfish Garden in British Columbia

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA—According to a Vancouver Sun report, shellfish gardens on Quadra Island beaches were built by First Nations peoples at least 3,500 years ago, or about 2,000 years earlier than previously thought. First Nations elders said the gardens, in addition to increasing the number of littleneck and butter clams living in the waters, would have also created good places to fish. Nicole Smith of the Hakai Institute said the rock-walled gardens and terraces were radiocarbon dated with barnacle scars left on the building materials. “If the rock came from another part of the intertidal zone and it was turned upside down during construction, [the barnacle scar] can be preserved in the sediment in an anaerobic environment,” she said. Clam shells in the wall were also dated, she added. Rising and falling sea levels would have required the communities that maintained the shellfish gardens to move them to maximize productivity and food security. “If it wasn’t productive it would just be in the way,” explained Dana Lepofsky of Simon Fraser University. To read about a barbed arrow point discovered in Canada's southern Yukon, go to “Time’s Arrow.”

Wednesday, February 27

Ram-Headed Sphinx Discovered in Egypt

LUND, SWEDEN—Live Science reports that a 3,300-year-old criosphinx, a sphinx with a ram’s head, was uncovered at Gebel el-Silsila, a quarry site located near Aswan on the banks of the Nile River. Archaeologist Maria Nilsson of Lund University thinks the massive statue, found in a pit of stone debris, may have been ordered by Pharaoh Amenhotep III and later canceled or perhaps abandoned after his death, around 1350 B.C. The team members also discovered a uraeus, a carving of a coiled-up cobra, thought to have rested on the sphinx’s head as a symbol of royalty. A small sphinx, iron shavings from chisels, and sandstone chips were also recovered from the site. To read in-depth about excavations at Egypts City of the Sun, Heliopolis, go to “Egypt's Eternal City.”

2,000-Year-Old Metal Artifact Unearthed in Japan

FUKUOKA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that an anchor-shaped piece of a metal object measuring about three inches wide was discovered in a possible grave at the Sugu archaeological site, which is located on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. The site is thought to have been a collection of settlements, rice paddies, and cemeteries known as the country of Nakoku in Chinese chronicles. The object is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and may have been a tool for attaching a horse’s reins to the hip of a carriage driver. Junichi Takesue of Fukuoka University said similar objects have been found in graves in southeastern Korea, and could be evidence of exchanges between the people of Nakoku and those living in southeastern region of the Korean Peninsula. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Eroding Roman Graffiti Recorded in Northern England

CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that Roman graffiti that was discovered in a sandstone quarry in northwestern England in the eighteenth century is now being recorded with 3-D technology by a team of researchers from Historic England and Newcastle University. Known as the Written Rock of Gelt, the quarry is now inaccessible without special climbing equipment. “They haven’t been recorded to modern standards,” said Mike Collins, inspector of ancient monuments for Hadrian’s Wall, “no one has really looked at them for 30-plus years.” The carvings include two eyes and a mouth thought to be a caricature of a Roman army officer, a good-luck phallus symbol, the names of the men working in the quarry, and in some cases, their ranks and military units. One inscription names the consuls Aper and Maximus, which pinpoints the graffiti to A.D. 207, and aligns with orders from the emperor, Septimius Severus, to refortify Hadrian’s Wall. To read in-depth about Hadrian's Wall, go to “The Wall at the End of the Empire.”

1,600-Year-Old Estate Uncovered in Central Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Archaeological investigations ahead of construction work in central Israel uncovered a 1,600-year-old winepress and limestone quarries with depressions where grapes may have once grown, according to a report from The Times of Israel. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University translated a Greek inscription in the structure’s mosaic floor that reads, “Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen.” The title “master” indicates that Adios had attained high social standing, said Hagit Torge of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The researchers also suggest Adios was a Samaritan, since Samaritan culture flourished in the region during the fifth century A.D., and an ancient Samaritan synagogue has been discovered nearby at Tel Zur Natan. Adios is thought to have made his fortune selling wine from the Holy Land to Christians living in the Byzantine Empire. Torge suggests he may have lived on top of what is now Tel Zur Natan. For more, go to “Food and Wine Gardens: Pompeii, Italy.”