TORONTO, ONTARIO—A step pyramid dated to 4,600 years ago has been uncovered in southern Egypt, at the ancient settlement of Edfu, by a team led by Gregory Marouard of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. One of seven “provincial” pyramids constructed before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, the Edfu pyramid was made of local sandstone blocks and clay mortar, had no internal chambers, and may have been dedicated to the royal cult of the king. “The construction itself reflects a certain care and a real expertise in the mastery of stone construction, especially for the adjustment of the most important blocks,” Marouard said at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. But less than 50 years after its construction, offerings were no longer made at the Edfu pyramid. Scholars think that the provincial pyramids were abandoned when Khufu began work on the Great Pyramid.
LAND’S END, ENGLAND—Burrowing rabbits have reportedly led archaeologists to 8,000-year-old Neolithic tools, a Bronze Age burial mound, and an Iron Age hill fort near the tip of Cornwall known as Land’s End by bringing artifacts to the surface. “They dug two little burrows right next to each other and all these treasures were thrown out of the earth,” said archaeologist Dean Paton. “It seems important people have been buried here for thousands of years—probably because of the stunning views,” he added.
AACHEN, GERMANY—Bones and bone fragments from Charlemagne’s gilded sarcophagus in Aachen Cathedral belonged to a tall, thin, older man, according to a team of scientists that began studying the bones in 1988. They announced their results this week, 1,200 years after Charlemagne’s death. “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne,” said Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich. The skeleton also showed signs of injuries to a kneecap and heel bones. Medieval biographer Einhard the Frank claimed that the king walked with a limp in his old age. No clues to his cause of death were found.
TEHRAN, IRAN—Fragments of stone bearing inscriptions—including a few spelling errors—have been unearthed in southern Iran at the Palace of Xerxes in Persepolis. A team led by Gian Pietro Basello of the University of Naples is attempting to reassemble the sixth-century B.C. text and decipher it. “The texts of the inscriptions were written by people with a high level of literacy, but the mistakes happened when the engravers cut the texts into the stones,” said team member Adriano V. Rossi.
KARACHI, PAKISTAN—Archaeologists say that the wooden and steel scaffolds erected at Mohenjodaro to serve as a stage for the launch a cultural heritage festival have harmed the ancient site, and that a planned light and sound show could further damage its delicate walls. “You cannot even hammer a nail at an archaeological site,” commented Farzand Masih of Punjab University. He added that the country’s Antiquity Act banned such activities. Mohenjodaro was one of the largest cities in the Indus Valley some 5,000 years ago.
MILAN, ITALY—A temple thought to have been dedicated to the goddess Minerva has been discovered beneath Milan’s cathedral, and a stone floor and a section of an arcade of the ancient Mediolanum Forum have been found under the basement of the seventeenth-century building that houses the historic art gallery, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, and the library, Biblioteca Ambrosiana. In A.D. 292 Mediolanum became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and it remained so until 402.
KYOTO, JAPAN—Ryu Murakami of the Kyoto National Museum thinks that two mirrors discovered in the Higashinomiya tomb in Inuyama may have been “magic mirrors,” which are thought to have originated in China. The patterns engraved on the back of the third-century bronze mirrors would have been projected onto a wall when sunlight reflected off the front. “Someone apparently noticed the phenomenon and intentionally shaped mirrors in this way. I believe they have something to do with sun worship,” he said. He recreated the two mirrors using copper, tin powder, and a 3-D printer to demonstrate how they would have worked. These are the first mirrors with “magic” properties to have been identified in Japan. “The finding could lead to reconsideration of the role of mirrors in ancient rituals. Sometimes, dozens of mirrors are found from the same burial mound. Theoretically, it’s not hard to imagine that they were lined up to project a number of images,” commented archaeologist Shoji Morishita of Otemae University.
BATTIR, WEST BANK—The 2,000-year-old agricultural terraces of the Palestinian village of Battir could be damaged if a separation barrier is built by the government of Israel. Opponents to the plan, including Israeli environmentalists, conservationists, and the local villagers, argue that altering part of the site would damage its integrity and upset the balance of its ancient system of seven springs and a Roman pool. “A country has the right to raise security concerns. It doesn’t have the right to destroy a cultural heritage site. If you can strike a balance in order to protect a potential world heritage site through technology that also safeguards or advances security interests, then the obligation is on the state to do that,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Two teams of scientists have identified genome segments that they say modern humans inherited from Neanderthals. David Reich and Sriram Sankararaman of Harvard Medical School, and Joshua Akey and Benjamin Vernot of the University of Washington in Seattle, found segments of the modern human genome, using computational methods, that were likely to have originated hundreds of thousands of years in the past, but entered the modern human gene pool more recently. These gene segments were then compared with the actual Neanderthal genome sequence to create a catalog of Neanderthal genes in modern humans. Both teams found that Neanderthal genes that tend to be common in modern humans are related to the workings of cells on the outer layer of human skin and the growth of hair. The researchers speculate that the genes that survived were beneficial to modern humans, and those that died out were harmful to them. “We find these gigantic holes in the human genomes where there are no surviving Neanderthal lineages,” explained David Reich of Harvard Medical School.
TORONTO, ONTARIO—At a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, Mark Lehner of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) suggested that the long buildings that were thought to have housed the pyramid workers may have served as barracks for soldiers and sailors instead because of the charcoal remains of wood imported from the Levant that were found there. “What was all this cedar from the Levant doing in a common workers barracks?” he asked. The buildings, known as galleries, are located in a city near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids, and could have housed the crews of incoming ships, or the troops depicted in the tombs of officials and in temples. In addition, Lehner’s team has uncovered a basin near a town named for Queen Khentkawes, who may have been Menkaure’s daughter. The basin may have been “an extension of a harbor or waterfront” that would have been less than a mile from the nearest Nile River channel. (This is also where the archaeologists discovered a large dwelling where royal cult priests may have lived.) “Giza was the central port then for three generations, Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure,” Lehner added.
MARIANNA, FLORIDA—The remains of 55 bodies have been unearthed at the former Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle—almost twice the number that had been recorded in official documents in the early twentieth century. Local legends of brutality at the reform school, and the deaths and disappearance of boys, led to the investigation, led by Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida. Her team is using artifacts recovered from the burials, including shirt buttons, and DNA testing to try to find relatives of the deceased. “Locating 55 burials is a significant finding, which opens up a whole new set of questions for our team,” she said.
ROME, ITALY—Excavations at the site of Sant’Omobono, a medieval church, have uncovered what may be Rome’s oldest known temple, dating to the seventh century B.C. It had been built on the banks of the Tiber River, near a bend that acted as a natural harbor. “At this point Rome is trading already as far afield as Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt. So they build this temple, which is going to be one of the first things the traders see when they pull into the harbor of Rome,” said Nic Terrenato of the University of Michigan. The traders left behind offerings that were probably dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. The temple’s foundation was discovered below seven feet of water held back with metal sheets. The team of archaeologists could also see in the trench how the original path of the river had been diverted as the Romans added leveled hills and filled in lowlands to make the city flatter and drier.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Three pits have been found on the grounds of the South Carolina State Hospital. The site was once home to Camp Asylum, a Civil War-era prison camp where some 1,500 Union soldiers were held. They may have dug the pits as shelter during the winter of 1864-65, since the barracks at the mental hospital only held 400 men. Artifacts recovered in the excavation include a brass button embossed with an eagle; a copper straight pin; a moustache comb for removing lice; an iron mug; and a piece of woolen fabric that may have come from a uniform. Much of the site will not be investigated before new development begins in a few months.
COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—Are Paleoindian hunters responsible for the demise of North America’s megafauna? Matthew Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman of the University of Missouri, Columbia, compiled databases of radiocarbon dates of megafauna remains and Paleoindian sites in the northeastern United States. They found that although humans and megafauna coexisted in the region for about 1,000 years, most of the megafauna had already disappeared, after two major periods of decline, by the time that humans moved into the area. Environmental stresses and the climate change of the Younger Dryas period, a 1,300-year-long cold snap beginning 12,700 years ago, could be to blame for the massive extinctions.
HAMILTON, ONTARIO—DNA extracted from the teeth of two Justinian plague victims from Germany has been studied by a team of scientists in order to understand how future strains of the bacterium Yersinia Pestis could evolve. The Justinian Plague of the sixth century and the Black Death of the fourteenth century were caused by distinct strains of Yersinia Pestis. The strain that caused the Justinian Plague has died out, but the Black Death strain has evolved and mutated and is still causing outbreaks of disease today. “If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggests it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large-scale human pandemic,” said researcher David Wagner of Northern Arizona University.
REHOVOT, ISRAEL—A repeatedly-used hearth full of ash and charred bone has been uncovered in Israel’s Qesem Cave. The hearth measures more than six feet in diameter at its widest point, and was located so that many individuals could have used it. Bits of stone tools that may have been used for butchering animals were also found in and around the hearth. “[The finds] …tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago,” said Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science. But it is not clear exactly which hominins lived in the cave and shared this large campfire.
ANKARA, TURKEY—A 1,500-year-old basilica has been discovered in western Turkey’s Lake Iznik. Mustafa Şahin of Bursa Uludağ University says that the ancient building can be seen from the shore. Excavations should help scholars determine who used the building. It may have been known as St. Peter’s Church, which is mentioned in early Christian writings. “We will share the findings with the public as soon as we get detailed information,” Şahin said.
OXFORD, ENGLAND—A second or third-century A.D. papyrus held in private hands has yielded two previously unknown poems written by the seventh-century B.C. Greek poetess Sappho. The first poem speaks of a sea voyage undertaken by a Charaxos, and a Larichos. The two have been thought to be Sapphos’ brothers since antiquity. Only a few words of the second poem, dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, survive. Both poems fit into the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” said papyrologist Dirk Obbink of Oxford University. He thinks the papyrus came from the Egyptian city of Oxyrynchus, where many ancient papyri have been discovered.
HAMBLEDEN, ENGLAND—Simon Mays of English Heritage continues to analyze the bones of Roman infants discovered near the site of Yewden Villa, which were first excavated in 1912. Mays and archaeologist Jill Eyers suggested two years ago that the babies had been killed at birth, based upon measurements of their arms and legs that indicated they were all newborns at the time of death. Now, DNA analysis suggests that boys had not been spared at the expense of girls. The researchers were able to obtain DNA from 12 of the 33 individuals. Of those, seven were female and five were male, a relatively even ration, according to Mays. And, none of the babies had shared a mother, making it unlikely that the burial site was used by prostitutes. “Very often, societies have preferred male offspring, so when they practice infanticide, it tends to be the male babies that are kept, and the female babies that are killed,” he explained.
BARCELONA, SPAIN—An international team of scientists led by Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona has released information from a preliminary study of 8,000-year-old DNA obtained from a skeleton discovered in Spain’s La Braña Cave. The new information, when compared to the genomes of other early nomadic hunter-gatherers from across Europe, indicates that nomadic hunter-gatherers were a genetically and culturally more cohesive group than had been thought. In particular, La Braña man was unable to digest starch and milk, had dark skin and blue eyes, and had immunity against several known diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malaria. It had been thought that Europeans gained immunity from these diseases from domesticated cattle and sheep. But Lalueza-Fox suggests that “epidemics affecting early farmers in the [Middle East] spread to continental Europe before they went themselves.”