LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—A mural at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey may depict an eruption of the Hasan Dagi volcano, according to new research by a team led by Axel Schmitt of the University of California Los Angeles. They analyzed and dated rocks taken from the summit and flanks of the volcano, and discovered that the volcano erupted around 6900 B.C., at about the time when the mural is thought to have been painted. “We tested the hypothesis that the Çatalhöyük mural depicts a volcanic eruption and discovered a geological record consistent with this hypothesis. Our work also demonstrates that Hasan Dagi volcano has potential for future eruptions,” Schmitt said.
OXFORD, ENGLAND—According to a review of baboon diets by Gabriele Macho of Oxford University, Paranthropus boisei, a hominid who lived in East Africa between 2.4 million and 1.4 million years ago, probably survived on a diet of grass bulbs, or tiger nuts, supplemented with fruits and invertebrates such as worms and grasshoppers. Paranthropus boisei is nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” for its powerful jaws, but its teeth are better suited for eating soft foods, and show signs of abrasion. In addition, stable isotope analysis indicated that the hominids ate grasses and sedges. Macho suggests that the marks on the teeth of Paranthropus boisei and modern baboons could have been caused by highly abrasive, starchy tiger nuts that require a lot of chewing to digest. “I believe that the theory—that “Nutcracker Man” lived on large amounts of tiger nuts—helps settle the debate about what our early human ancestor ate. …What this research tells us is that hominins were selective about the part of the grass that they ate, choosing the grass bulbs at the base of the grass blade as the mainstay of their diet,” she explained.
DENVER, COLORADO—Thirty statues, some of them estimated to be 100 years old, that have been stored at the Denver Museum of Nature since 1990 will be returned to the National Museums of Kenya. Known as vigango, the statues are carved from wood by the Mijikenda people and erected to honor the dead. Many such statues have been taken and sold in the United States because there are no laws in Kenya or the U.S. to protect them. Monica L. Udvardy of the University of Kentucky has tracked vigango for the past 30 years. Her work led to the repatriation of two vigango—one from the Illinois State Museum and the other from Hampton University Museum in Virginia. To date, these two statues had been the only ones to have been returned by American museums.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Mycenaean elites of the late Bronze Age probably dined on meats cooked on portable grills and bread baked on non-stick griddles. Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College worked with ceramicist Connie Podleski of the Oregon College of Art and Craft to replicate two Mycenaean souvlaki trays and two griddles. Hruby then started cooking, using ingredients listed on ancient tablets as provisions for feasts. As she reported at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Hruby found that the heavy grill pan worked best when hot coals were placed inside its tray, rather than the tray placed in a cooking fire, suggesting that it was a portable device. Her tests of the griddles, which have a smooth side and a side with holes, showed that bread was probably placed on the side with the holes, since the dough tended to stick when cooked on the smooth side of the pan. “There are cooks mentioned in the Linear B [a Mycenaean syllabic script] record who have that as a profession—that’s their job—so we should envision professional cooks using these,” she added.
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—A stack of photographic negatives from Ernest Shackleton’s last Antarctic expedition have been recovered and developed by researchers from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in New Zealand. They found the negatives in a box in a hut at Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Scott had died in 1912 while racing to the South Pole. Three years later, ten stranded men from Shackleton’s expedition took shelter in the hut. Known as the Ross Island Party, the men lived on seal meat and supplies until they were rescued in 1917. The moldy, damaged negatives yielded images of expedition geologist Alexander Stevens, the ship Aurora, icebergs, and the Ross Sea. “It’s an exciting find, and we are delighted to see them exposed after a century. It’s a testament to the dedication and precision of our conservation teams’ efforts to save Scott’s Cape Evans hut,” said Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—The 5,000-year-old site of Mashabei Sadeh, located in the Negev Desert, consists of some 200 ancient structures near dry riverbeds that flowed during the rainy season. Did the residents use these limited resources to grow crops and keep herds to sustain themselves? Zach Dunseth is excavating Mashabei Sadeh as part of the Negev Highlands Research project, directed by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University and Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute. Dunseth looked for coprolites, which would be evidence of animal husbandry and might contain phytoliths of cultivated plants. But no coprolites were found at Mashabei Sadeh. “No animal pens, no faunal remains, no stone tools like sickle blades, and most of all, no dung…. This leads us to believe that this large settlement was probably sustained by some other form of economy,” he said. A smaller settlement nearby did contain some dung, however. “There must be an explanation hidden somewhere in the ground, but at this point what we have are only hints of something greater, of Mashabei Sadeh being part of a far larger economy,” he added.
BEIJING, CHINA—Scientists at Tsinghua University have cleaned and reassembled a collection of 2,500 thin bamboo strips dating to 305 B.C. that had once been held together with string to form 65 ancient texts. Feng Lisheng, a historian of mathematics at the university, explained that one of the texts, written all in numbers on 21 of the bamboo strips, is the world’s oldest example of a multiplication table in base 10. It may have been used to calculate the surface area of land, crop yields, and taxes. “Such an elaborate multiplication matrix is absolutely unique in Chinese history,” he said.
MELBOURNE, FLORIDA—Paleoecologist Crystal McMichael of the Florida Institute of Technology has developed a model to predict where pre-Columbian people may have lived and farmed in the Amazonian rainforest. Poor soil quality had led archaeologists to believe that large-scale farming would have been impossible, but recent discoveries of earthworks and roads suggest that cities did exist. Areas of darker soil containing charcoal and pottery shards, known as terra preta, or “black earth,” suggest that pre-Columbian residents of the rainforest enriched the soil for farming themselves. McMichael and her team analyzed the location and environmental data from some 1,000 terra preta sites and concluded that the worked earth is most likely to be found in central and eastern Amazonia, on bluffs overlooking rivers near the coast. The new model could help researchers discover possible archaeological sites.
RABAT, MOROCCO—An examination of the skeletal remains of 52 sedentary hunter-gatherers who lived in Morocco more than 13,000 years ago has revealed that 49 of them suffered from tooth decay in more than half of their surviving teeth. Scientists blame the sticky, high-carbohydrate and nutty plant foods in the diet consumed at the Grotte des Pigeons complex at Taforalt, which included snails, sweet acorns, pine nuts, and pistachios. “At a certain point, the tooth nerve dies but up until that moment, the pain is very bad and if you get an abscess the pain is excruciating because of the pressure on the jaw. Then, of course, the bone eventually perforates and the abscess drains away, and we see this in a lot of the jaw remains that we studied,” said Louise Humphrey of London’s Natural History Museum.
PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Paleoanthropologist William Kimbel of Arizona State University and his colleagues have examined the base of a partial cranium of Ardipithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million-year-old primate known for its ape-like tiny brain and grasping big toe for climbing, and more human-like small teeth and and upper pelvis capable of bipedal locomotion. Kimbel’s results are in line with earlier studies that show the base of Ardi’s cranium links it to 3.4 million-year-old Australopithecus skulls and those of modern humans. “Given the very tiny size of the Ardi skull, the similarity of its cranial base to a human’s is astonishing,” he said.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry has announced that more than 1,500 looted artifacts have been recovered by police during the raid of a house in a Cairo suburb. Statues, amulets, and limestone false doors that are usually found in tombs were recovered. One of the suspects was also in possession of ammunition. “The variety of the seized antiquities indicates that they are the result of illegal digging by armed gangs,” said Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.
BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—Michael Jacobson of Binghamton University wants to know if there are any archaeological traces of the Battle of Chemung, part of a strategically important offensive that took place in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. The Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of the Continental Army first attacked the village of New Chemung, a base for British loyalists and their Native American allies, and burned it to the ground. Two weeks later, General Sullivan’s troops defeated the British loyalists and the Iroquois at the nearby Battle of Newtown. With the help of historic documents and the official map from the Sullivan expedition, a recent topographical map, and a geographic information system, Jacobson and his team were able to examine the cornfield where they think the Battle of Chemung took place with a magnetometer. Tests should reveal if their finds date to the late eighteenth century. “There was a local push to highlight the fact that Chemung was a separate battle from Newtown, and also to help preserve the landscape,” Jacobson explained.
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.