TUCSON, ARIZONA—Chemist Wayne Wesolowski of the University of Arizona has analyzed paint chips from a surviving piece of window frame from the railcar that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body from New York to Illinois after his death in 1865. The rest of the car was destroyed in a fire in 1911. Millions had gathered to witness Lincoln’s funeral procession, but different witnesses reported different colors for the railcar. By comparing the chips with national color standards, Wesolowski has determined that the car was a brownish-red color, or “dark maroon.” “It was such a huge, important event, and we knew a lot of the technical details about the railcar, but the color had been a mystery,” he said. A replica train will be built to retrace the path of the procession for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death in 2015.
BAVARIA, GERMANY—The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which caused the disease known as the Black Death in the fourteenth century, has been identified in DNA samples taken from 19 skeletons of people who died in sixth-century southern Germany. It is thought that these people were felled by the Justinianic Plague, which killed more than 100 million people between the sixth and eighth centuries. Named for the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the plague is thought to have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. “It is always very exciting when we can find out the actual cause of the pestilences of the past,” said Barbara Bramanti of Johannes Gutenberg Univeristy.
LONDON, ENGLAND—A new genetic study by population geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop of the University of California suggests that all modern Europeans share common ancestors who lived as little as 1,000 years ago. The scientists examined the entire genomes of 2,257 people from 40 populations. “Even pairs of people as far apart as the U.K. and Turkey share a chunk of genomic material 20 percent of the time,” they said.
MUĞLA, TURKEY—Roman-era mosaics have been discovered at the ancient city of Milas in southwestern Turkey, after police were tipped off that pottery had been looted from the site. The excavation team found the tiled artwork some three feet below the surface, where the suspects reportedly said that they had found the pots. “We already knew that there were very precious historical artifacts in the region. We need to focus more on unearthing them,” said Milas District Governor Bahattin Atçı.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A first-century quarry has been discovered in northern East Jerusalem. Pick axes, wedges, and a key have been found at the site, where huge stones were removed and transported along a road, downhill to the city’s building projects. “The quarrying phenomenon created a spectacular sight of bedrock columns and steps and craters of sorts that were the result of the rock-cuttings. What remained are rock masses in various stages of quarrying, and there were those that were found in a preliminary stage of rock-cutting prior to detachment,” said Irina Ziberbod of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—David Sear of the University of Southampton has created the most accurate map to date of the submerged medieval port town of Dunwich, on England’s eastern coast. Sear recorded the town’s streets, boundaries, and major buildings in the murky, muddy water, by combining high-resolution acoustic imaging with old charts and navigation guides. Beginning in 1286, storms eroded the coastline and silted up the Dunwich River and eventually the town’s harbor. By the fifteenth century, Dunwich was no longer viable. “Everyone was surprised, though, by how much of the eroded town still survives under the sea and is identifiable,” commented Peter Murphy of English Heritage.
MILAN, ITALY—Excavations at the Church of Saints James and Philip on the outskirts of Milan have uncovered the graves of an infant and an adult, in addition to coins dating to the reign of the Roman emperor Magnentius, who ruled between 350 and 353. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage for Lombardy has declared the church to be of historical interest.
HAARLEM, NETHERLANDS—Skeletal remains, buttons, bullets, and musket parts were discovered in a sand dune in the northern Netherlands by surprised birdwatchers who had been awaiting the arrival of a rare feathered visitor. Archaeologist Esther Poulus was called in, and she determined that the bones were of a British soldier who had been killed in a one-day battle in 1799. His uniform buttons identify him as a member of the Coldstream Guards. Veterans of the current Coldstream Guards regiment claimed the soldier’s bones earlier this month. “The archives in the UK show that the two soldiers I think it could be were in the most dangerous jobs, as grenadiers. Judging by his remains, our soldier was probably around 1.8m tall, which was tall for the time. And the grenadiers recruited the tallest. So it’s just a hunch,” Poulus said.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—A research team led by Charles Stanish of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology used astronomical software and 3-D modeling to determine that during the winter solstice, southern Peru’s Cerro del Gentil pyramid aligned with two geoglyphs and the setting sun. The geoglyphs are two stone lines that are positioned so that they appear to frame the pyramid as the setting sun sank behind it. “Thus the pyramid and the linear geoglyph constitute part of a single architectural complex, with potential cosmological significance, that ritualized the entire pampa landscape,” they wrote. The team continues to study other geoglyphs in the area. “A lot of them are being destroyed by construction,” Stanish said.
OXFORD, ENGLAND—Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University has concluded after many years of study that the famed Hanging Garden has never been found in Babylon because it was actually constructed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in Nineveh. Among the textual evidence she cites is the king’s description of his palace and its system of canals, dams, and aqueducts that brought water to Nineveh from 50 miles away. Traces of a giant aqueduct can be seen from the air near the ancient city. Other texts refer to a garden resembling a mountain landscape, complete with terraces, pillared walkways, exotic plants and trees, and streams. She adds that it was the first-century historian Josephus who placed the Hanging Garden in Babylon.
WACO, TEXAS—Thousands of butchered animal bones bearing two-million-year-old tool marks have been uncovered at the Kanjera South site in Kenya by anthropologist Joseph Ferraro of Baylor University. The bones represent entire gazelles and other relatively small animals that may have been killed by Homo erectus hunters and taken back to Kanjera South, where they were butchered. Few animal tooth marks on the bones support the idea that the animals were killed by hominids. Additional skulls and jaws from larger animals such as antelope and wildebeests suggest that human ancestors also scavenged the heads left behind by large predators in order to eat the nutritious brain tissue. There are no signs of cooking at Kanjera South, however.
READING, ENGLAND—Evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading thinks that many of today’s languages could share a common ancestor language dating back 15,000 years. He and his colleagues built a statistical model to predict how long a particular word may have remained in use. Based upon Indo-European words with similar sounds and meanings, the model only takes the frequency of the word’s use and its part of speech into account—not its sound, which has traditionally been employed to reconstruct “protowords.” The new model predicts that most words have a 50 percent chance of being replaced every 2,000 to 4,000 years, but very common words, including some pronouns and numerals, can last for 10,000 or even 20,000 years. “The model hints at a group of people living somewhere in Southern Europe as the glaciers were receding, speaking a language that might resemble those spoken today. It’s astonishing that spoken language can be transmitted through millennia with enough fidelity to give us information about our early history,” he said.
BEIRUT, LEBANON—Syria’s medieval castles and forts are situated in areas that are still strategically important. The citadel of Aleppo, a World Heritage Site, protects government forces as they shell opposition fighters, dividing the city in half. Reports also indicate that the south wall of the crusader castle Crak des Chevaliers has been nearly destroyed by modern weapons. It protects the route between the coast and the Orontes River Valley. “All the kingdoms of settled Syria wanted to control the famous route that is known as the Homs gap,” said Helen Sader of the American University in Beirut. Activists say that the third-century al-Madiq citadel in Hama has been used by government forces to shell villages to the north. “This is the importance of Syria. And this is what made it so attractive to so many powers—and it still is. We just hope that this will end very soon, before they destroy everything,” she added.
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to repatriate to Cambodia two life-size, tenth-century statues known as “The Kneeling Attendants,” based upon evidence suggesting that the statues had been looted from the Koh Ker temple complex during Cambodia’s civil war. Witnesses place the statues at the temple complex as late as 1970, and officials at the museum were presented with photographs of the statues’ broken-off bases, which remain in situ. The Met received the statues as two heads and two torsos as separate gifts between 1987 and 1992. “This is a case in which additional information regarding the Kneeling Attendants has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today,” Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, said last Friday.
LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Thirteen burials, part of a 1,700-year-old Roman cemetery, have been found beneath a parking lot. The burials display a range of religious beliefs. “Unusually the 13 burials found during the recent excavations, of mixed age and sex, displayed a variety of burial traditions, including east to west and north to south-oriented graves, many with personal items such as finger rings, hairpins, buckles and hob-nailed shoes,” said archaeologist John Thomas. In one of the burials, the body, which had been placed on its side, had the head removed and placed near its feet, along with two pieces of pottery. In another burial, the body had been wearing a ring decorated with what could be an early Christian symbol.
NANAIMO, BRITISH COLUMBIA—The Cedar By the Sea Petroglyphs site on Vancouver Island has reportedly been damaged by workers contracted by the local power company. “This is a well-known site. I don’t understand this to be a mistake that can be made… this is the kind of desecration where I would expect charges to be laid,” said Douglas White, chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The same site was damaged in 1960 when a power pole was installed. Lyle Viereck, director of aboriginal relations for BC Hydro, said that the site had been omitted from the information provided to the contractor in error. Archaeologist Guy Prouty of Vancouver Island University commented that an inspection of the area should have been carried out before construction began.
VATICAN CITY—While restoring a fresco painted in 1494 by Pinturicchio on the walls of the Vatican’s Borgia Apartments, Maria Pustka found small images of dancing men that may be the first Western depictions of Native Americans. “The Borgia Pope was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe. It is hard to believe that the papal court, especially under a Spanish pope, would have remained in the dark about what Columbus encountered,” wrote Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. That pope would eventually arbitrate the division of New World lands between Spain and Portugal.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—Waterway features dating to the Spanish colonial period have been unearthed in Brackenridge Park. The dam, built in 1719, is the oldest to be unearthed in the city. Its irrigation waterways served the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which was moved further north after a hurricane in 1724. This is “one of the most concentrated groupings of acequia features [to be found] in the past 10 or 15 years,” said Kay Hindes, city archaeaologist.
CHESTER, CALIFORNIA—Logging equipment has reportedly damaged a prehistoric Native American village site and an ancient trail, and a Maidu grinding stone in northeastern California’s Humbug Valley. “We don’t want to impact a cultural site. We’re very concerned about that,” said Pacific Gas & Electric Company archaeologist James Nelson. Buffer zones around the archaeological sites have been increased. The land is currently conserved by PG&E, but the Maidu Summit has applied to the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council to assume ownership of the land, the largest intact area that remains of their ancestral homeland.
CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—Volunteers have been spending their time sifting through the piles of dirt left behind by moles in the earthworks at the second-century Roman fort of Epiacum. Over the years, the moles have brought pottery, glass, and even intact artifacts to the surface. “I realize it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually quite serious. We look at all the finds and we work out what’s going on in different parts of the fort and different kinds of pottery tell us what dates different buildings are,” said archaeologist Paul Frodsham of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A recent survey by English Heritage has shown that there is a civilian settlement near the well-preserved fort.