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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, February 28

Study Tracks Plague’s Progress in Medieval Denmark

HAMILTON, ONTARIO—According to a statement released by McMaster University, a team of scientists including Julia Gamble of the University of Manitoba and Ravneet Sidhu of McMaster University looked for fragments of DNA from Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, in the teeth of nearly 300 sets of human remains unearthed at 13 different archaeological sites in Denmark. They detected plague in 13 of these individuals, and were able to collect enough genetic information from nine of them to study the arrival and spread of different strains of plague in Denmark over some 300 years during the medieval period. Jesper L. Boldsen of the University of Southern Denmark said that the results show that as new pathogens were introduced to Denmark, they produced waves of plague in urban and rural areas. Some of these strains were traced to the Baltic region and Russia, he added. Although plague struck Denmark’s port cities the hardest, it was also detected at a rural site in central Denmark with no access to water transport, suggesting that the disease was carried inland by humans or other disease vectors traveling with them. For more on Yersinia pestis, go to "A Killer Bacterium Expands Its Legacy."

Burial in Scotland Dated to the Iron Age

APPLECROSS, SCOTLAND—According to a BBC News report, skeletal remains from six people discovered under a kitchen floor in the Scottish Highlands in 2015 have been dated to 2,000 years ago. It was initially thought that they dated to the eighteenth century. Archaeologist Cathy Dagg said that these are the first remains dated to the Iron Age to be found in the acidic soils of the west Highland coast. These bones survived, she explained, because they were in an area with cobbled stones known as “storm beach” that helped keep them dry. The construction of a building on the site in the nineteenth century also helped to protect the site, Dagg concluded. For more on Scottish archaeology, go to "Letter from Scotland: Land of the Picts."

Monday, February 27

Flotsam May Be Wreckage of Historic 19th-Century Ship

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK—According to an Associated Press report, a piece of wreckage recovered off Fire Island after Tropical Storm Ian may be from the SS Savannah, a 100-foot sailing ship that was initially equipped with a steam-driven sidewheel. In 1819, the steam engine was used for about 80 hours during the three-month trip from Savannah to England, making the Savannah the first vessel to use steam power while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. People were afraid to travel on the hybrid vessel, however, and the steam engine was removed from the ship before it ran aground and broke apart in 1821 on a voyage from Savannah to New York while carrying a load of cotton. The crew escaped and the cargo was salvaged at the time. The 13-foot-square piece of wreckage, currently housed at the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, consists of planks held together with wooden pegs. Iron spikes have also been found in the wood. “It’s plausible, and it’s important, and it’s living history if the scientists confirm that it is what we think it is,” said Ira Breskin of the State University of New York Maritime College. To read about the early history of New York City's status as an economic powerhouse, go to "New York's Original Seaport."

Ancient Inscription Uncovered in Saudi Arabia

NAJRAN, SAUDI ARABIA—ArtNews reports that three gold rings, a bronze bull’s head, and an inscription written in Musnad, a pre-Islamic script used in southern Arabia, have been found at the site of Al Ukhdud. Each of the connected rings bears a butterfly-shaped lobe. Bulls’ heads are thought to have been used to symbolize power, fertility, wisdom, and divinity in pre-Islamic art. The inscription, which covers about seven and one-half feet, describes the life of Wahib Eil bin Magan, a water carrier who lived at the site. Pottery at the site has been dated to the third century B.C. To read about a stone platform dating to the mid-sixth millennium B.C. near the site Dumat al-Jandal, go to "Around the World: Saudi Arabia."

Hunter-Gatherers in Spain Enjoyed Mediterranean Seafoods

YORK, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of York, an analysis of the chemical composition of collagen samples taken from 11 people whose remains were unearthed at El Collado, a Mesolithic cemetery in Valencia, Spain, indicates that these hunter-gatherers may have eaten more fish from the Mediterranean Sea than previously thought. Fishing was thought to be more important to hunter-gatherer communities living near the Atlantic and Baltic seas, Maria Fontanals-Coll of the University of York explained, because the Mediterranean Sea does not produce as much food. Fontanals-Coll and her colleagues found, however, that the coastal hunter-gatherers buried at El Collado between 9,500 and 8,500 years ago ate plenty of marine foods, including brackish fish and shellfish. “These findings have implications for understanding how farming, which swept through the Mediterranean in the following Neolithic period, took hold,” she concluded. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. To read about the 18,700-year-old remains of a hunter-gatherer woman recovered from a cave in northern Spain, go to "The Red Lady of El Mirón."

Friday, February 24

Wooden Roman Defenses Uncovered in Germany

BAD EMS, GERMANY—Remains of a fence topped with wooden spikes have been uncovered at the site of a Roman military base in western Germany by Markus Scholz of Goethe University and Daniel Burger-Völlmecke and Peter Henrich of the General Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Rhineland-Palatinate, according to an Artnet News report. The site, made up of more than 40 towers and a camp, was destroyed by a fire that began in a watchtower. The heavily fortified structure protected a Roman silver mining operation, which was abandoned in A.D. 47, as recorded by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus. A rich vein of silver was eventually discovered in the region in 1897 during an archaeological investigation. To read about the Roman conquest of Germany, go to "The Road Almost Taken."

Have France’s First Arrows Been Found?

TOULOUSE, FRANCE—According to a Nature News report, Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Laure Metz of Aix-Marseille University suggest that stone points recovered from a 54,000-year-old layer in Grotte Mandrin, a rock shelter in the Rhône Valley, were made by some of the first modern humans to live in the region. A child’s tooth found among the thousands of stone tools in this layer has been identified as a modern human tooth, while the smallest of these tools resemble arrowheads known to have been made by ancient modern humans, the researchers explained. Slimak and Metz made replica points from flint found near the rock shelter, and then attempted to use them as arrows, thrusting spears, and spear-thrower darts to stab or shoot at goat carcasses. They found that the larger points would have worked as spears and darts, but the smaller ones would only have penetrated animal flesh when used as an arrow shot by a bow. Neanderthal remains and tools have been found in layers above and below this modern human layer, they added, but it appears that the Neanderthals who used the cave after the modern humans did not adopt their bow and arrow technology. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Science Advances. For more on some of the earliest known hunting weapons, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Hunting Equipment."

New Thoughts on an Unusual Burial in Sardinia

CAGLIARI, ITALY—According to a Live Science report, Dario D’Orlando of the University of Cagliari and his colleagues examined excavation records of Sardinia’s Monte Luna necropolis, which was unearthed in the 1970s, and the skeletal remains of a woman who had been buried face down there. The new study confirmed that the woman was between the ages of 18 and 22 when she died sometime between the end of the third century and the beginning of the second century B.C. D’Orlando explained that evidence of blunt-force trauma, perhaps from a fall, was found in the skull, in addition to a square hole consistent with a sharp-force injury from a Roman nail. He thinks the blunt-force injury could be the result of a fall during an epileptic seizure, while the sharp-force injury may have been inflicted after death to prevent her epilepsy from spreading to others—an ancient Greek remedy described in the first century A.D. by the Roman general known as Pliny the Elder. Such Roman ideas may have emerged in Sardinia after the end of the first Punic War in 241 B.C., D’Orlando explained. To read about recent research in Sardinia, go to "Tyrrhenian Traders."