Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, March 21

Germany Repatriates Olmec Artifacts to Mexico

MUNICH, GERMANY—According to a Deutsche Welle report, German officials handed over two 3,000-year-old Olmec busts to Mexico in a ceremony held earlier this week. German authorities seized the two wooden sculptures, and about 1,000 other artifacts, from an antiquities dealer in 2008. The sculptures were then stored in the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection. The repatriated sculptures are thought to have been looted in the 1980s from El Manati, an archaeological site in eastern Mexico, where they are believed to have been buried along with 13 other artifacts that were excavated from the site by archaeologists. These items included axes and stone knives. “The recovery is very significant, since Olmec culture represents one of the first civilizations in ancient Mexico and only 13 pieces exist with the same characteristics,” said Maria Villarreal of Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology. The Olmec busts will eventually be exhibited in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology. To read in-depth about the Olmec, go to “Kings of Cooperation.”

Seventeenth-Century Decorations Uncovered in English Castle

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—Wall paintings dating to the seventeenth century have been uncovered at Lindisfarne Castle, which was originally constructed as a fort in 1550 on Holy Island, off the coast of northeastern England. The Guardian reports that the images were found under layers of paint and plaster in the castle’s old kitchen and in one of the bedrooms by conservators. “They used charcoal to draw it, very simple carbon, and there are areas of red pigment so they might have been painted and colored,” said house steward Nick Lewis. “We know it was done professionally, so you didn’t just sit and do it yourself, and in those days there was a guild of wall painters who they would have used.” Lewis said the find surprised him, since the building was originally constructed for military use. And, because the decorations were found in two different parts of the structure, the entire building may have received similar treatment. The paintings will be stabilized and restored. To read in-depth about nearby Bamburgh Castle, go to “Letter From England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Two Historic Ships Discovered in Virginia

WASHINGTON, D.C.—According to a WTOP report, two shipwrecks have been unearthed at a construction site in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. An eighteenth-century ship was found nearby in 2015. The three vessels are thought to have been used as landfill when the port was filled in. City archaeologist Eleanor Breen said additional evidence of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wharves, piers, maritime vessels, and commercial industries may still be uncovered at the site. To read in-depth about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, go to “Shipwreck Alley.”

Tuesday, March 20

Isotope Analysis Offers Clues to Maya Diet

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA—Science Magazine reports that chemical analysis of the isotopes in animal bones unearthed in the ancient Maya city of Seibal determined which of the animals ate a diet rich in forest plant material, and were therefore wild, and which animals ate maize, and were therefore kept by humans. Archaeologist Ashley Sharpe of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said dozens of turkeys, dogs, and one large cat that may have been a jaguar had all been fed maize-based diets. The bones of those dogs have been radiocarbon dated to between 450 and 300 B.C., making them the earliest known animals to have been domesticated by the Maya. These small, Chihuahua-like dog bones bore no signs of butchery, although Sharpe notes that doesn’t mean they weren't consumed. One pair of dogs from this period had isotope levels that suggested they had lived in Guatemala’s volcanic highlands before they were buried near a pyramid in Seibal’s central plaza. The cats, whose remains date to between 450 and 350 B.C., may have served a similar ceremonial use. The maize-fed turkeys lived between A.D. 175 and 950, at a time when dog remains became extremely scarce, indicating they could have replaced dogs as the Maya’s primary food source. For more on domestication of animals as food sources, go to “The Rabbit Farms of Teotihuacán.”

Iceland Ice Cores Date Medieval Volcano

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—According to a Live Science report, researchers led by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge examined ice cores and tree ring data from Iceland, in order to calculate precise dates for the medieval eruption of the Eldgjá volcano, and determine whether the massive lava flood and sulphurous gases emitted by the eruption could have been witnessed by the Viking and Celtic migrants who settled Iceland in A.D. 874. The study indicates the lava flowed from the spring of A.D. 939 through the autumn of 940. These dates also correspond with records of haze, cold summers, and food shortages in Europe. Oppenheimer says the dates indicate that some of Iceland’s first settlers, and perhaps two generations of their descendants, may have witnessed and survived the cataclysm, and eventually translated their experiences, including the ensuing devastation and famine, into the Voluspá, a poem written around A.D. 961. It describes a volcanic eruption and meteorological events signifying the end of the island’s pagan gods and is credited with paving the way for the Christianization of Iceland. To read more about archaeology in Iceland, go to “The Blackener’s Cave.”

2,000-Year-Old Liquid Reportedly Recovered in China

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—According to a Xinhua report, a Qin Dynasty (221–207 B.C.) cemetery in western China has yielded some 260 artifacts, including a bronze kettle sealed with natural fibers that still contained about ten ounces of milky white liquid. Xu Weihong of the Shaanxi Province Archaeological Institute said analysis of the liquid suggests it had been fermented. The kettle is thought to have been a sacrificial vessel used for worship rituals, like many of the objects in the tomb. Other artifacts include a bronze sword measuring about two feet long. Nicks on its blade indicate it had been used in battle. A five-inch-long turtle shell bearing punch marks on its inside and burn marks on its edge was also recovered. It may have been used by a fortune teller for divination purposes. To read about another recent discovery in China, go to "Underground Party."

Monday, March 19

1,000-Year-Old Cathedral Foundations Uncovered in England

HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that the foundations of the original A.D. 1077 apse were uncovered at St. Albans Cathedral under just three feet of soil. “One of our major aims was to confirm its presence and confirm the abbey was one of the early Norman cathedrals,” said Ross Lane, director of the excavation for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The excavation also uncovered approximately 20 graves dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. “They are clustered close to the walls in tile-lined tombs,” Lane said. The people in the graves are thought to have either lived in the abbey or been its benefactors in order to have received such honored burial spots. A new visitor center will be built on the site. To read about graffiti in medieval English churches, go to “Letter From England: Writing on the Church Wall.”

Nineteenth-Century Gold Mine Found in New Zealand

WAIKAIA, NEW ZEALAND—The Southland Times reports that traces of a late nineteenth-century gold mine were found on New Zealand’s South Island by archaeology consultants engaged by the forestry company IFS Growth. The consultants first spotted the site, which is now covered over with heavy scrub, in historic aerial photographs. “To everyone’s surprise, we could see an extensive and largely intact gold mining complex consisting of water races, reservoirs, sluice workings, and sludge channels,” said Matthew Sole of Kopuwai Consulting. Miners’ huts were also part of the complex. Known as the Muddy Terraces site, the mine yielded as much as 42 ounces of gold during one five-week period, according to one newspaper account. Once the site’s boundaries have been determined, the forestry team will continue their harvest around it. To read about a discovery in Australia, go to “Death by Boomerang.”