MANDA, KENYA—A Chinese coin discovered at the Kenyan island of Manda suggests that trade existed between Africa and Asia as far back as 600 years ago. The copper and silver coin, known as a Yongle Tongbao, has a square hole punched in it and was issued during the Ming Dynasty reign of Emperor Yongle, who ruled between A.D. 1403 and 1425. The age of the coin predates the voyages of European explorers, such as Vasco de Gama, by several decades, indicating trade routes might have existed before these men set sail.
LONDON, ENGLAND—While constructing a section of Crossrail, a 73-mile high-speed railway set to connect far-flung parts of London in 2018, workers stumbled upon a pit in the Charterhouse Square section of the city that contains several burials which scientists believe are tied to the early years of the Black Death. The skeletons, 13 so far, were found along with ceramics that date to the middle 1300s, when the plague was arriving at its peak. The bodies, which are arranged in two neat rows within the 18-foot shaft, could help scientists learn about the lifestyle of mideval Londoners, as well as offering an opportunity to learn about the spread of the pandemic.
WARSAW, POLAND—Polish archaeologists have identified the remains of three grand masters of the Teutonic Knights, a medieval religious and military order that ruled much of the Baltic coast in the late Middle Ages. The skeletons were discovered in 2007 in a crypt underneath a cathedral in the Polish town of Kwidzyn. "Anthropological and DNA testing has enabled us to back up the theory that these are the remains of the grand masters," says project archaeologist Bogumil Wisniewski. "We can be 96 percent certain." The three men, Werner von Orseln, Ludolf Koenig, and Heinrich von Plauen, led the Teutonic order at the height of its power, from 1324 to 1413. To see images of the excavation and artifacts recovered from the crypt, visit Wisniewski's website (in Polish).
VALLEY OF THE KINGS, EGYPT—Archaeologists from the University of Basel have unearthed one of the earliest sundials ever found in Egypt. Dating to the 13th century B.C., the flat piece of limestone is covered with black lines describing a semicircle divided into twelve sections. It would have been inserted with a bolt that cast shadows that showed the hours of the day. The team discovered the artifact amid the remains of stone huts that were occupied by workers who built lavish tombs nearby. The archaeologists speculate that the laborers used the sundial to keep track of the hours they worked.
TINIAN, MARIANAS ISLANDS—A husband-and-wife team working in the Northern Marianas Islands have found a settlement on Tinian that they say dates to 3,500 years ago. The site is roughly 1,200 miles of sea from the nearest known inhabited area, in what is today the Philippines. Recently, Michael Carson and Hsiao-chun Hung, archaeologists from Australian National University, believe they can show that the migration must have gone from the Philippines to Tinian by following a trail of pottery between the two. Ceramics bearing similar designs to those found at ancient archaeological levels on the Marianas have been uncovered in the Philippines and dated back to almost 4,000 years ago. "That constituted the longest ocean-crossing in human history of its time 3500 years ago,” Carson said.
CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—An enameled bronze rooster figurine dating to 100 A.D. and discovered in a Roman child's grave has just been restored. According to archaeologist Neil Holbrook, the object is the most important artifact found in the past 40 years at Cirencester, once the second largest Roman town in Britain. Conservation work highlighted the fine detail and workmanship that went into the figurine. "This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make," says Holbrook. "To actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly." It's possible the figurine was left in the grave because roosters were associated with Mercury, who accompanied souls to the afterworld.
CHHATTISGARH, INDIA—Archaeologists in India believe they have found the remains of a city dating to the second or third century B.C. in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh. The claim comes after the serendipitous 2008 discovery of several artifacts on the banks of the Kharun River, including bones, coins, and ceramics. Several structures found around the initial finds combine to give the impression of what was once a market area, located 20 miles from the Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. The site, which the Archaeological Survey of India has approved for excavation, has also offered up terracotta figurines of both human and animal forms.
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—British parking lots are certainly starting to seem like archaeological treasure troves. Hot on the heels of the recovery of Richard III's remains from a parking lot in Leicester, the grave of a medieval knight has been found in a parking lot in the Old Town section of Edinburgh. The skeleton of the grave's one-time occupant was found in the immediate vicinity of the headstone that bore the Calvary Cross. The buried nobleman, uncovered as part of a construction project to build the University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Center for Carbon Innovation, points to the location of the long lost Blackfriars monastery, which was founded in A.D. 1230 and destroyed during the Protestant Reformation of the mid-1500s.
NEW YORK CITY—A recently translated, 1,200-year-old religious text written in the Coptic language tells the story of Jesus' crucifixation in a way that departs significantly from Biblical accounts. The text was orginally from an Egyptian monastery that seems to have ceased operating in the tenth century. The manuscript resurfaced in 1910, and was purchased by New York financier J.P. Morgan. According to Utrecht University historian Roelof van den Broek, who translated the text, it is written in the name of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth-century saint. Among other apochrypal claims, the text says that Jesus had dinner with Pontius Pilate before the crucifixation, and that Judas used a kiss to identify Jesus for those who came to arrest him because he was constantly changing his shape. Van de Broek says that while the Bible was canonized by the fifth century, apocryphal stories remained popular among Egyptian Christians long after that. The manuscript is on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.
OXFORD, ENGLAND—A new study claims Neanderthals used so much of their brains to process visual information that they never developed the cognitive abilities that would have allowed them to compete with Homo sapiens. Anthropologists have long suspected that Neaderthals needed more acute vision because they evolved in Europe, where nights are long and the days often dim. But our ancestors evolved in Africa, where plentiful sunshine and relatively short nights meant we never had to devote too much brain power to seeing. Oxford University anthropologist Eiluned Pearce tested the theory by comparing the skulls of 32 Homo sapiens and 13 Neanderthals and found that our extinct cousins had significantly larger eye sockets. "Since Neanderthals evolved at higher latitudes, more of the Neanderthal brain would have been dedicated to vision and body control," says Pearce, "leaving less brain to deal with other functions like social networking." That could have been the difference between extinction and survival.
BEIJING, CHINA—Paleoanthropologists re-examining stone tools from the Paleolithic site of Shuidonggou have found that the relatively sophisticated stone tools known as blades began to appear in northern China around 34,000 to 38,000 years ago. That's about ten thousand years earlier than archaeologists assumed. The discovery shows that not only were people using diverse technologies in eastern Eurasia at this time, but that the cultural traits neccessary to make these blades moved quickly from Central Asia to China.
AMARNA, EGYPT—Analysis of remains from a cemetery at the city of Amarna is painting an unsettling picture of the reign of the famously monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten. Sometime around 1350 B.C, Akhenaten rejected the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods and moved his capital to Amarna, some 200 miles south of modern Cairo, where he established a religion dedicated to the worship of the sun god Aten. Art from the period depicts Amarna as an idyllic city of plenty, but the cemetery tells a different story. Remains of children show they were malnourished and engaged in an unsually high degree of physical activity. Adult skeletons show evidence of hard labor and numerous injuries. "We have evidence of the most stressed and disease-ridden of the ancient skeletons of Egypt that have been reported to date," says University of Arkansas bioarchaeologist Jerome Rose. "Amarna is the capital city of the Egyptian empire. There should be plenty of food. Something seems to be amiss."
YORK, MAINE—On a Maine beach last weekend heavy seas exposed the hull of a shipwreck that could date from 1750 to 1850. The 50-foot-long hull probably belonged to a sloop, a single masted vessel used for fishing or transporting cargo. One of 1,595 shipwrecks known on the coast of Maine, the vessel first appeared after a storm washed sand away from the timbers in 1958. It has been periodically exposed by storms a few times since, but archaeologists have always allowed sand to reclaim the ship. "It's often best just to leave them in the ground," says Leith Smith, a historical archaoelogist who works for the Maine Preservation Commission. "When it's covered, it's fairly well preserved."
LONDON, ENGLAND—Thanks to University of Leicester archaeologists, the final resting place of Richard III will not be a parking lot. But the question of where the House of York's last king should be reburied is now consuming politicians representing regions historically associated with the monarch. The terms of the original excavation permit give the University of Leicester team the responsibility of deciding where the bones are reburied, and Leicester Cathedral seems to be their choice. An online petition favoring reburial in Leicester, where the king was killed in the 1485 battle of Bosworth Field, has drawn more than 7,500 signatures. But some 25,000 have signed a dueling petition calling for re-interring the bones in York Minster. "The call is strong from the great county of Yorkshire that Richard III did want to be buried where he was loved," said minister Julian Sturdy, who represents a York constituency. "That was the key thing. He was loved and supported in the great county of Yorkshire." The House of Commons is scheduled to hold a debate on the issue today.
LONDON, ENGLAND—After a decade of intense investigations at Stonehenge, archaeologists from University of College London now say that as many as 4,000 people gathered to construct the ancient monument, at a time when the total population of Britain was only in the tens of thousands. Their findings suggest that Stonehenge was not built as an observatory or an astronomical calendar, but rather may have been erected as part of a social ritual that brought together people from across the island. Analysis of animal teeth found nearby suggests that people came from as far away as Scotland to help build the monument. "What we have discovered is it's in building the thing that's important," says archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson. "It's not that they're coming to worship, they're coming to construct it."
LUXOR, EGYPT—A team led by German Egyptologist Horig Sourouzian has discovered 14 black granite statues of the goddess Sekhmet in the funeral temple of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Standing six feet tall, each statue depicts the half-human, half-lioness goddess sitting on a throne. The team had already excavated 64 Sekhmet statues of differing sizes at the fourteenth-century B.C. temple, which is on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor. The goddess of war, Sekhmet also played a role as a guardian, which may account for the large number of statues depicting her. According to Mohamed Ibrahim, minister of state for antiquities, some scholars "believe that king Amenhotep constructed a large number of goddess Sekhmets in an attempt to cure him of a specific disease that he suffered during his reign." The statues will soon be added to a virtual reconstruction of the funerary temple, which aims to show where all the excavated statuary would have stood in the original temple.
HADAROM, ISRAEL—More information has become available about a donkey that had been ritually buried with a bit and saddle bags 3,700 years ago at Tel Haror. The copper bit in the donkey’s mouth had been assembled from pieces of three separate bits and it was not in working order. No other metal bridle fittings were found. The young donkey’s teeth show no evidence of bit wear. “This strongly suggests that, in the context of the ritual donkey burial of Tel Haror, the bridle bit had symbolic significance and its quality and functional state were of little concern,” wrote the investigative team, headed by Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa. The metal saddle bag fittings indicate that they were probably made of leather.
LONDON, ENGLAND—A new study led by biologist John Fa of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Imperial College, London, suggests that although Neanderthals were expert hunters of large mammals, they may have been too specialized to switch to hunting smaller, faster game such as rabbits when the numbers of large animals dwindled. The team examined food remains from Neanderthal and modern-human sites in Spain, Portugal, and southern France. “We show in our study that [modern humans] used rabbits extensively, but Neanderthals didn’t,” he said. Fa speculates that among modern-human groups, women and children may have specialized in hunting rabbits with help from dogs.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—Neurobiologist Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California used CT scanning technology to examine the arteries of mummies from five different archaeological sites spanning 4,000 years. The Peruvian, ancestral Pueblo Indian, indigenous Aleutian islander, and ancient Egyptian populations that he tested showed signs of atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries. The fats and sugars of the modern diet are known to contribute to clogged arteries and heart disease, but “the generality of our observations suggests it is really a basic part of human aging under all circumstances,” he said.
WUSTERMARK, GERMANY—Europe’s oldest-known fishhooks have been discovered in a field along with animal and fish remains. Five of the six 12,300-year-old hooks had been carved from reindeer or elk bones; the sixth hook was carved from the 19,000-year-old tusk of a mammoth. It had been thought that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers just speared slow-moving fish such as salmon. The hooks suggest that they also caught faster eel, perch, and pike in lakes as the climate became warmer. “These people had strong ideas to use the new resources of this changing environment,” said Robert Sommer of the University of Kiel.