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.
HAIFA, ISRAEL—Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a site that might have been occupied by Paleolithic hominins nearly 200,000 years ago not far from the town of Nesher Ramla in northern Israel. Found in a depression, where water flow has caused the bedrock sags into the voids below, the team recovered lithic tools that resemble the Mousterian tradition, hearths, animal bones, and residue of the pigment ochre. The age of the site was dated using optically stimulated luminescence and could be as young as 74,000 years or as old as 190,000 years.
BOONE, NORTH CAROLINA—Archaeologists are in agreement that the Indus Civilization, which flourished in present-day Pakistan and northwest India from the 4th to the 2nd millennium B.C., met its demise due to a change in climate. Now Appalachian State University anthropologist Gwen Robbins Schug adds to that narrative, showing that a weakened monsoon season led to both disease and social instability in the region. An inspection of 160 burials found at the site of Harappa, which collapsed beginning in 1900 B.C., turned up evidence of trauma-related bone growth, sinus infections, and telltale signs of tuberculosis and leprosy, as well as indications of systematic violence between the city's citizens. Women and children, in particular, who were struck by scarring diseases were most likely to have been the victims of assaults. The destabilization caused by the environmental changes appears to have led to violent displays of power directed at the lower classes.
BEIJING, CHINA—In eastern China's Shandong Province, Field Museum of Chicago archaeologist Gary Feinman has discovered remains of an extensive earthen wall dating to 500 B.C. Predating the Great Wall of China by 300 years, the fortification stands 15 feet high in some places and may run for several hundred miles. Unlike its more famous counterpart, the wall was not built to defend the Chinese against marauding nomads, but marked the border between warring dynastic states. Constructed by the leaders of the Qi Dynasty, one of whom, Qin Shi Huang, would eventually unite the states as one nation, the wall is so sturdy that even today people use stretches of it as the base of a dirt road that connects rural communities.
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM—A green faience bust that was taken from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir, Egypt, amidst the chaos of the 2011 Arab Spring has surfaced at an auction hall in Belgium. A French archaeologist alerted Egyptian authorities to the artifact's appearance, and the object is now slated to be returned to Tahrir. Standing just over 10 inches tall, the bust represents a prince of the 26th Dynasty (ca. 685-525 B.C.), a period that saw Egyptians unite their country under native rule after occupation by a string of foreign powers.
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Scientists have determined that a variation of a gene that increases the risk of a person developing type 2 diabetes by 25 percent was likely introduced into human populations by Neanderthals more than 60,000 years ago. Half of people with a recent Native American lineage, including Latin Americans, have the gene, SLC16A11, as do 20 percent of East Asians. The newly seqeuenced, high quality Neanderthal genome, taken from a female toe found in Siberia's Denisova Cave, also included the variant, and researchers say that analysis suggests that Neanderthals introduced it into the human genome when they intermixed with modern humans, after the latter left Africa 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. According to the findings from the completed Neanderthal genome, roughly two percent of the genomes of today's non-African humans are comprised of Neanderthal DNA.
ARABA/ÁLAVA, SPAIN—Archaeologists have found evidence of viticulture in two of more than 300 known deserted settlements Araba/Álava province of Spain, part of the nation's northern Basque Country. One of the sites, Zaballa (or Iruña de Oca), was a feudal territory set up in the A.D. tenth century around a manor monastery. It was abandoned roughly 500 years later. The other, Zornotegi (or Salvatierra), lasted for roughly the same time but had less of a social hierarchy in place. Both, however, had terraced fields dating back to the tenth century that archaeologists believe were used for growing grapes, and not for growing cereal grains, as previously thought. “Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century,” says Antonio Quirós-Castillo of PV/EHU-University of the Basque Country. "Owing to the nature of the crop spaces built and the agrarian practices developed, they are not compatible with cereal crops but they are with vines.”
ROME, ITALY—After a delay of two years, efforts to rid the Colosseum of a coating formed of traffic exhaust and organic materials, known as "black rust," are moving ahead. Thanks to a private $33 million donation, restorers will spend the next three years working in scaffolding erected over 150 feet by 150 feet sections and will clean the iconic site's walls by washing them with non-chemical solutions. Once the walls are clean, conservators will turn to restoring recent damage sustained at the site.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—In the Mexican state of Jalisco, archaeologists are unearthing the remains of 23 ceremonial structures at the site of Teocaltitan. Erected during the Classic period, between 450 and 900 A.D., the buildings are similar in style to ones still standing at the famous ancient city of Teotihuacan. Archaeologist Marisol Montejano Esquivias is heading the National Institute of Anthropology and History team excavating the site. “The interesting thing about Teocaltitan, apart from having Teotihuacan influence, is that it has elements that are very characteristic of the region such as the square architecture, sunken gardens in U-shape, pyramids with closed gardens, [and] ball game courts,” said Montejano. In one ball court, her team also found copper and shell earrings next to the cranium of a decapitated person. The artifacts date to between 900 and 1200 A.D., indicating the center was used in the Post Classic Period.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In November of 1912, the schooner "Rouse Simmons" set sail from Michigan's upper peninsula, bound for Chicago with a cargo of Christmas trees. The 44-year old ship was captained by Herman Schuenemann, who was known as "Captain Christmas" and was famous for giving trees away to the needy. It's possible the holiday cargo was too heavy for the vessel to safely transport. Though logs show the weather was clear, the schooner went down with all hands, perhaps hit by a rouge wave. Maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen has been to the site of the shipwreck, which in 1971 was discovered in 178 feet of water. “It’s just a beautiful site," said Thomsen. "And it’s very interesting that it’s completely loaded with Christmas trees even today. And if you look down below the top layer of Christmas tree—Christmas trees still have needles on them." Every year the Coast Guard delivers free trees to Chicago's needy in memory of "Rouse Simmons."
TUCSON, ARIZONA—A team of scientists has determined that the pattern displayed by human hunter-gatherers to forage for food is the very same for as for disparate organisms, like sharks and honeybees. The researchers studied the Hadza people of Tanzania, a culture that still hunts big game, tracking the hunter-gatherers' movements with GPS-fitted wristwatches. The primary discernable hunting behavior of the Hazda is called a Lévy walk, a fundamental movement pattern across species characterized by a series of short treks in a particular area followed by larger sojourn to find a new area for exploration. “We can characterize these movement patterns across different human environments, and that means we can use this movement pattern to understand past mobility,” said David Raichlen, a University of Arizona anthropologist and principal investigator on the new research.
HAIDERSHOFEN, AUSTRIA—A quartzite hammerstone found at the site of Lehberg in Austria could bear the handprint of an ancient human ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago. Lehberg has offered up Acheulean axes and a phallus-shaped item that's splattered in ochre, but the new find ties the activities of Homo erectus in Europe to the hand painting done by its descendants 450,000 years later in caves like Rouffignac. Stereoscopic light microscope imaging of the hammerstone showed an ochre outline that likely corresponds to the ball and thumb of an ancient right-handed hominin. The faint stain was likely left when the long extinct user held the stone while grinding ochre with water to make a paint.
HYDERABAD, INDIA—An arm bone retreived from the pieces of a stone sarcophogus found in the ruins of a church in Goa on the west coast of India likely belonged to Ketevan, the 17th century queen of the Kingdom of Kakheti in eastern Georgia. Literary sources say that when Kakheti was conquered by the Persians in 1613, Ketevan was taken prisoner. After refusing to join the Persian emperor's harem, she was tortured and killed 11 years later, and a portion of her body was said to have been taken to St. Augustine's Chuch in Goa and kept on a window. Since the mid-1800s, the church has fallen into ruin, but Georgian and Indian archaeologists managed to recover an arm bone from what was left of the stone box. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bone suggests its much more likely to have come from a Georgian than an Indian, providing a tantalizing clue that it could be Ketevan's.
REHOBOTH BEACH, DELAWARE—Residues of pottery sherds from ancient Scandinavian settlements dating as far back as 1200 B.C. are the inspiration for Delaware-based brewey Dogfish Head's latest ancient ale, Kvasir. Patrick McGovern, a bioarchaeolgist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and frequent collaborator with Dogfish Head on these brews calls the drink a Nordic grog. The recipe for Kvasir, which is available in limited quantities now, involves yarrow, lingonberries, cranberries, bog myrtle, and birch syrup. Prior to Kvasir, Dogfish Head brewed Midas Touch, influenced by residues taken from 2,700-year-old pottery found in Turkey, and Chateau Jiahu, an ale that traces its history back to Neolithic China.
TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA—A pond in eastern Florida that held prehistoric burials dating to more than 8,000 years ago has been bought by the Archaeological Conservancy for $90,000—effectively saving it from being destroyed to make way for a new housing development. In 1982 construction near Windover Pond inadvertantly led to the discovery of more than 150 early Archaic burials, including 91 skulls with brain tissue still intact in them. Excavations in the mid-1980s also uncovered ancient textiles and a 15-year-old boy who apparently died of spina bifida. "Windover is an extremely significant and important site. It's unique," said Jessica Crawford, the Archaeological Conservancy's Southeast regional director. "We'll do what we need to do to keep it protected and keep it intact."
WARSAW, POLAND—A Polish team excavating at the site of Old Dongola in northern Sudan have uncovered a 900-year-old medieval crypt. Dating to a period when Old Dongola was the capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria, the crypt held the naturally mummified remains of seven individuals. According to an epitaph in the tomb, one of them was the powerful Archbishop Georgios, who died in A.D. 1113. Inscriptions covering the crypt's walls include quotations from the gospels of Luke, John, Mark and Matthew, as well as prayers to the Virgin Mary. The researchers believe the inscriptions were meant to protect those buried in the tomb during the time between their moment of death and their appearance before God.