STORRS, CONNECTICUT—Colonial-era roads and farmsteads have been spotted in Connecticut and Massachusetts using high-tech, LiDAR scanners that use laser light pulses to generate images of surface features hidden by forest growth. “A great deal of New England is now forested, and a lot of people don’t know it wasn’t always that way. There was a lot of subsistence farming across New England, but with industrialization and people heading west to farm, people abandoned these homesteads and the forests started covering everything,” said Katharine Johnson of the University of Connecticut.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Archaeologists can learn a lot about a Mediterranean shipwreck by examining the surrounding underwater ecology, according to information presented at annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America by Derek Smith, a researcher at the University of Washington and a member of the RPM Nautical Foundation. He says that the types of growth of underwater creatures on amphoras and other artifacts can tell archaeologists whether or not they have been disturbed over time. And in return, the creatures that cling to ancient amphoras can provide ecologists with unique information about settlement and recruitment processes. The data collected by the RPM Nautical Foundation on the shipwrecks of the Mediterranean Sea and its underwater creatures will become part of the Organization for Mediterranean Archaeology, Geology, and Ecology database.
LONDON, ENGLAND—An eighth or ninth-century gilded Celtic disc has been discovered within a lump of organic material that has been sitting in a storeroom in the British Museum for more than 100 years. Excavated in Norway by a British archaeologist in the late nineteenth century, museum curator Barry Ager thinks the artifact was probably crafted in Ireland or Scotland and then looted by the Vikings from a shrine or a reliquary. Rivet holes and a pin that converted the disc to a brooch were added by the Vikings. The brooch was then perhaps wrapped in textiles and placed in a wooden box before it was buried with a high-status Viking woman. “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye,” Ager said.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—At the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, scholars from Cornell University talked about their experiences of casting life-like wax masks of their own faces. Such masks, or imagines maiorum, were used in ancient Roman funeral processions to represent deceased male ancestors. The beeswax masks would have been expensive to produce and difficult to maintain over successive generations. “They were constantly transformed and probably never looked pristine, and I think probably in the end more like zombies than anything else,” said art historian Annetta Alexandridis.
CAIRO, EGYPT—The style of burial that King Tutankhamun received upon his death might have been intended to help reverse a religious shift brought on by his father, Akhenaten, says Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. King Tut was entombed with his heart removed, covered in a viscous black liquid, and with his penis erect. Ikram hypothesizes that the presentation may have been intended to evoke the god of the underworld, Osiris. The missing heart would have symbolized the burial of Osiris's heart after he'd been attacked by his brother Seth. The black liquid would have darkened Tut's skin, making him the same color as Osiris. And, as for the pharaoh's penis, its erect status might symbolize Osiris's powers of regeneration. Making King Tut appear as Osiris could have been an attempt to counteract his father's elevation of the sun disk Aten to the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—An analysis of the genomes of eight ancient Europeans by an international team of scientists, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Germany's University of Tübingen, contradicts the prevailing belief that Europeans are descendants of Middle Eastern farmers that mixed with dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers. The scientists studied DNA from seven hunter-gatherers found in Sweden and one woman found in Luxembourg, all dating to about 8,000 years ago. They found that modern Europeans are primarily made up of hunter-gatherers who migrated out of Africa 40,000 years ago, a later influx of Middle Eastern farmers, and a third population that the team named "ancient northern Eurasians," which ranged from northern Europe to Siberia.
CINCINNATI, OHIO—At the famed Palace of Nestor at the Bronze Age site of Pylos in southern Greece, University of Cincinnati archaeologist Emily Catherine Egan has found that ancient artists discovered a new way to impress visitors seeking an audience with the king. The painted plaster floor of the palace's throne room, dating to between 1300 and 1200 B.C., differs from other palatial floors of the era in that it combines depictions of both textiles and stone masonry. According to Egan, the combination of these two materials on the floor not only contradicted reality, but reinforced the king's aura of power. "It depicted something that could not exist in the real world, a floor made of both carpet and stone," said Egan. "As such, the painting would have communicated the immense, and potentially supernatural power of the reigning monarch, who seemingly had the ability to manipulate and transform his physical environment."
CAIRO, EGYPT—Japanese Egyptologists have discovered the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb, a New Kingdom official who was in charge of beer production for the temple of the goddess Mut. The team made the discovery while cleaning the area in front of another tomb that belonged to a statesman who served Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned from ca. 1391–1353 B.C. Khonso-Im-Heb's tomb is decorated with colorful paintings depicting his family, as well as Egyptian deities such as Osiris, god of the afterlife.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Excavations for a new extension of Mexico City's subway system have unearthed some 100 Aztec burials, as well as an unusual offering of human skulls placed on a display rack alongside a dog skull. Dating to between 1350 and 1521 A.D., the display rack, known as a tzompantli, would have been used by Aztecs to showcase the severed heads of enemy warriors who had been sacrificed to the gods. Researchers were surprised to find that one of the skulls belonged to a woman, since women were not typically taken as war captives. But the presence of the dog skull was even more puzzling. During the Spanish Conquest, Aztecs were known to place the skulls of horses on display racks, but until now no other animals were known to be associated with a tzompantli. It is possible the dog played a ritual role in death rites, since some Mesoamerican people were known to believe dogs accompanied their owners to the underworld. “Perhaps there are dogs associated with these altars in other sites and we don't know it,” said National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Maria de Jesus Sanchez.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In Pompeii, a team led by University of Cincinnati archaeologist Steven Ellis has discovered evidence that challenges the traditional perception of Roman dining, which holds that the rich feasted on exotic animals while the poor were reduced to eating simple fare. In a two block area near the city's Porta Stabia gate, the team excavated some 20 shop fronts that would have served food and drink to the general public. Scraps of food recovered from latrines and cesspits show that these businesses weren't just serving gruel, but a wide variety of foods, including cuts of expensive meat and salted fish imported from Spain. In one drain the archaeologists found shellfish and a leg joint of a giraffe, the first giraffe bone to be reported at a site in Italy. "The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings—scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel—needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii," said Ellis.
ARMIDALE, AUSTRALIA—The near-complete skeleton of a 60,000 year-old adult male Neanderthal found in a cave in Israel contains a bone in the area of the throat whose shape and relation to other bones suggest it provided modern human's extinct relatives with the capability for complex speech. The Neanderthal's horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone has a similar appearance to that of modern humans. It is wider than in non-human primates, like chimpanzees, that cannot make human-like vocalizations. An international team of scientists created a computer model of the Neanderthal hyoid and showed that its positioning would have likely allowed the hominins to speak. Further, hyoid bones of the 500,000 year-old Homo heidelbergensis have also been found but not yet studied. If they turn out to have a similar configuration to the Neanderthal, then human-like speech may have begun as many as 400,000 years earlier than previously thought.
QUMRAN, ISRAEL—Analysis of three 2,000-year-old pieces of fabric found in the Wadi Murabba'at caves, not far from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were recovered, showed that the textiles had been dyed using a pigment extracted from the murex sea snail, known to be the source of the Roman era's most prestigious colorings. One of the fabrics, a woolen piece, had an blue hue that might have been described in the Bible. Researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority believe the color was achieved by exposing the cloth to heat or sunlight after dyeing. Prior to this discovery, only two textiles had been found with murex dyes on them.
TEXAS CITY, TEXAS—On New Year's Day 1863, a Staten Island Ferry boat-turned-Civil War ship called the USS Westfield was run aground by Confederate forces during the Battle of Galveston, during which Confederate forces would retake the Texan coastal city. Rather than be captured, the captain of the Westfield attempted to scuttle his ship, a manuever that cost him and 12 of his men their lives. The Westfield was excavated from the Houston Ship Channel in 2009 and conservators at Texas A&M University have been working diligently to restore artifacts from the wreckage. The conserved remains are set to go on display at the Texas City Museum this year in three phases, beginning with the unveiling of a Dahlgren Cannon capable of firing a projectile as far as 1.5 miles. Later in the year, conservators hope to display the 16-foot-tall engine cylinder and eventually one of the ship's boilers will join the exhibit.