BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Roman lead, once used for making currency, weaponry, and construction materials, is at the center of a spat between archaeologists and physicists. Ingots made of the older lead, which has already decayed is pure, heavier, and less radioactive than its modern equivalent, are typically found in Roman shipwrecks. It is melted into bricks that often ends up in the hands of physicists who find it to be ideal material for experiments involving dark matter. The lead is a perfect shield for detectors that look for dark matter and other rare particles because of its lower radiation levels—on the order of 1,000 less noise than modern lead. The material is currently employed in the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment taking place in Minnesota and in an Italian effort, the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events. "Are these experiments important enough to destroy parts of our past, to discover something about our future?" says archaeology graduate student Elena Perez-Alvaro of England's University of Birmingham.
SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—While selecting objects from the Springfield Science Museum's collection for a display on Northwest Coast cultures, anthropology curator and archaeologist Ellen Savulis came across a large, ornate object described in the catalogue only as an “Aleutian hat.” But the piece, carved from a large piece of wood and accepted into the collection sometime after 1899, looked nothing like Aleutian hats, which were made from thin pieces of driftwood. Suspecting the artifact was instead a helmet of some kind, Savulis contacted Steve Henrikson, Curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, for help. After seeing photographs of the piece, Henrikson had no doubt that it was a war helmet made by the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska. Only 95 of these war helmets, which are decorated with clan emblems, are known to exist today. Its carving style dates the artifact to before the mid-19th century, when the appearance of firearms among the Tlingit relegated helmets to ritual use.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—The study of ancient mental illness can at best be characterized as an "inexact science," but it is a passion of Columbia University historian William V. Harris, who studies such conditions in ancient Greece and Rome. Take for instance, the event we now know as the marathon. The inspiration comes from the courier Pheidippides's vision of Pan, the god of nature, during his run from Athens to Sparta to enlist the Spartans' help in defeating the Persians at Marathon. Harris characterizes Pheidippides seeing Pan as a possible hallucination.
In 2010, Harris started two conferences on mental illness in the ancient world. Now the findings of those events are being published, including a sort of glossary of descriptions in the classical world. One example is the word "phrenitis," which in ancient texts seems to correspond to bouts of delerium, fever, and death. To contemporary doctors, they would probably chracterize such a condition as encephalitis. According to Harris, "The names of mental disorders that the very best ancient thinkers have used don’t often correspond to anything that exists in the modern world in a neat and tidy way."
ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA—A team led by Mercyhurst University archaeologist James Adavasio will excavate a site in Vero Beach, Florida, that is one of North America's most controversial. In 1915, workers dredging a canal in Vero Beach unearthed a trove of bones belonging to extinct Ice Age animals such as saber tooth cats, ground sloths, and mammoths. Among those remains were a human skull, and dozens of other human bones that could have belonged to a man who lived 13,000 years ago. Dubbed "Vero Man," the remains became a flashpoint in the debate over the antiquity of humans in the New World. “From the beginning, Vero was one of the more infamous archaeological sites in North America because it was seen as such a threat to the then perceived wisdom that no humans had lived here during the last Ice Age,” said Adovasio. He and his team will apply modern, scientific techniques to the Vero Beach site, which has excellent preservation of Ice Age plant and animal remains.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Skeptics have long argued that Neanderthals in Europe did not bury their dead, an activity that implies sophisticated symbolic thought. While Neanderthal burials have been unearthed in the Near East, many believed it was a tradition borrowed from anatomically modern Humans, with whom Neanderthals could have been in contact during the period when the graves were originally dug. Now a team led by New York University anthropologist William Rendu has carried out excavations at caves in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France, where a purported Neanderthal burial was discovered in 1908. In re-excavating the site, the anthropologists discovered unambiguous evidence that two Neanderthal children and one adult were buried in a pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints long before modern humans reached Europe. "It is novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought," said Rendu. "The behavioral distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner."
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A Neolithic man who was buried in a nearly 300-foot-long long barrow, or mausoleum, 1.5 miles west of Stonehenge, 5,500 years ago has been poked, prodded, and reconstructed by scientists and placed in a spot of prominence to welcome tourists to a new Stonehenge visitors center opening tomorrow. The enamel on the man's teeth allowed scientists to determine the composition of his drinking water and to learn that he moved back and forth between modern Wales and the area surrounding Stonehenge until well into his teens. From nitrogen isotopes, also found in his teeth, researchers determined that he was an upper class individual who ate meat from early on in life, an indication that he inherited this status. Further, his travel to Wales and back suggests he may have been involved in the construction of the early monument of Stonehenge, which geologists believe was made of bluestones from the west, as opposed to the heavier sarsens seen today.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Students under the direction of Steven Fine, a biblical archaeologist at Yeshiva University, are attempting to decipher the script on a 1,600-year-old sandstone Jewish tombstone taken from the majority Christian city of Zoar in modern-day Jordan. The artifact came to Fine's attention when he was contacted by a pastor at a northern California church and sent a photo of the headstone. He would later travel to California and collect the item for more study. So far the students have translated what they can make out of the Talmudic Aramaic inscriptions. They determined that the tombstone belonged to a woman named Sa’adah, though they don't know her age at death since, according to Jewish custom, it's not written on the artifact. The students are still studying the tombstone, which they were also able to date to the A.D. fifth century by reconciling two dating systems referred to in the Aramaic.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Syria's head of antiquities and museums first notified the world this past February that unlawful archaeological excavations were taking place in his war-torn country, specifically at sites such as Palmyra and Ebla. On Friday, Irina Bokova told journalists that the problem of illicit digs was getting worse. "This is our biggest concern nowadays," she said, "that we don't know what's happening there, this illicit trafficking (and) exports" of artifacts." Bokova added that her organization has informed U.N. peace-keeping officials, as well as leaders of the Arab League, that illegally excavated Syrian cultural heritage material has been found in Jordan.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Study of a farming village in the Shaanxi province of China has turned up some of the earliest known evidence of cat domestication. Eight bones from two cats were found at the site, along with remains of dogs, pigs, deer, and rodent. Radiocarbon dating indicates the material at the site dates to roughly 5,300 years ago. Isotopic analysis of the cat bones suggested that they were eating rats that had eaten millet that was grown on the farm. Interestingly, one of the two cats seemed to eat more millet than smaller animals, indicating that the ancient Chinese farmers were feeding it. "Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," said Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."
HONOLULU, HAWAII—Archaeologists consider the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica as societies that each independently developed sophisticated, multi-layered governments that scholars call primary states. Now archaeologist Robert J. Hommon argues in a new book that ancient Hawaii belongs on that same list, which also includes the Indus Valley and Andean cultures. According to Homon, Hawaiian society evolved from several independent chiefdoms to one that was governed by a few kings who collected taxes, one of the hallmarks of the state. "The point I am making is that this was an organizational revolution," said Hommon. "Once primary states developed, then the organization is already in place. It's basically the same as what we live under today, except that we live in much larger societies. And this was a Native Hawaiian accomplishment."
HANOI, VIETNAM—Archaeologists say that to truly understand Thang Long, the 11th-century Vietnamese Imperial Citadel, they will need to excavate at the site for decades. "We are touching an elephant and do not know its whole body," said Tong Trung Tin, director of Viet Nam Archaeology Institute. "The area that has been excavated is too small to explain the entire old royal capital." Thang Long was built by the Ly Dynasty in the 11th century on the site of an earlier, 8th-century citadel. The complex's central Kinh Thien Palace, built in 1428, was destroyed by the French in the late 19th century. There are proposals to rebuild the palace, but archaeologists caution that more excavations need to be done before the site can be accurately reconstructed.
TARANTO, ITALY—Archaeologists digging a rock-cut tomb in the Puglia region, the Italian peninsula's "heel," have discovered a 2,400-year old terra cotta pig that could have been a toy or served as a baby bottle. The remains of two adults were found in the tomb, which was made when the area was occupied by the Messapians, a people who migrated to the region from the Balkans some 3,000 years ago. Led by the archaeologist Arcangelo Alessio of the Archaeological Superintendency of Puglia, the team discovered 30 funerary objects in the tomb, including female statuettes and ointment vessels. Known as a guttus, the pig vessel had rattles in its belly, possibly to soothe a baby to sleep. The archaeologists suggest that the tomb could have once held the remains of a third individual, a baby, which have since decomposed.
ROME, ITALY—The church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, one of the earliest Christian monuments in the city still standing, will reopen to the public for the first time since 1980. The fifth-century A.D. church has been closed while conservators restored the monument, known as the "Medieval Sistine Chapel," because of the vivid frescoes from numerous periods that cover its walls. The church was buried during an earthquake in 847 and was rediscovered by Italian archaeologist Giacomo Boni in 1900.
HONOLULU, HAWAII—According to some scholars, the people of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, committed “environmental suicide” by deforesting their island, an event that led to the society's demographic collapse. But now some archaeologists, including the Bishop Museum's Mara Mulrooney, believe that intepretation of the island's history is wrong. Mulrooney studied 300 radiocarbon dates from Rapa Nui and found that people continued to use the interior of the island to cultivate crops such as sweet potatoes up until European contact. Previously it had been believed that these areas had been abandoned when the island chiefdom supposedly collapsed. "The new picture that emerges from these results is really one of sustainability and continuity rather than collapse, which sheds new light on what we can really learn from Rapa Nui,” said Mulrooney. “Based on these new findings, perhaps Rapa Nui should be the poster-child of how human ingenuity can result in success, rather than failure.” Mulrooney believes that it wasn't until after European contact and the introduction of new diseases that the society underwent demographic collapse.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—According to an agreement signed yesterday, the Duryodhana, a statue determined to have been looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in the 1970s, will return to Cambodia. The tenth-century Khmer statue had been consigned to Sotheby’s New York auction house in 2011, when the Cambodian government asked that it be returned as stolen property. “The agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times,” said Andrew Gully, a spokesperson for Sotheby’s. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, added that “The United States is not a market for antiquities stolen from other nations, and we will continue to track down and return any that are brought here illegally.”
KIELCE, POLAND—Archaeologists have found a water system dating to the seventeenth century at the twelfth-century Swiety Krzyz monastery on Holy Cross Mountain. In a central courtyard of the monastery, they found the upper part of a cistern that had been carved from the rock. It collected rainwater and groundwater for the use of the monks and their garden, and it would have provided enough water to sustain them during a drought. In the eighteenth or nineteenth century, a brick reservoir was added to the system. “We have uncovered the system for collecting and storing water, expanded over three centuries. Similar solutions have never been discovered anywhere else,” said archaeologist Czeslaw Hadamik.
GWYNEDD, WALES—The remains of three people were unearthed near the ruins of Harlech Castle, where a new visitor center is under construction. The castle, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built by Edward I in the thirteenth century. Iestyn Jones of Archaeology Wales said that the bodies had probably been buried when the site was used as a cemetery and might have been belonged to people who were killed sometime between 1461 to 1468, a period when the castle was constantly under seige during the War of the Roses. Pottery at the site dates to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
STRATFORD, ENGLAND—Archaeologists think they have found the foundations of Rokeby House, the seventeenth-century home of William Clowes, surgeon to King Charles I. Under the Rokeby House, they found the remains of a Tudor building, and beneath that, a medieval building. Two parallel ditches underneath the medieval building may have been part of a Roman road that ran through Stratford. “We’ve found a great sequence of archaeology on the site which illustrates the history of Stratford from the Roman period through to the present day,” said archaeologist Helen Hawkins. Apartments and a shopping area will be constructed on the site.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Geochronologist Matt Cupper from the University of Melbourne removed sediments from the barrel of a bronze cannon discovered during an unusually low tide at northern Australia’s Dundee Beach in 2010. He then used optically stimulated luminescence to test the sediment and find out how long the gun had been buried. The results suggests that it may have been lying on the seabed for 250 years, making it possible that it was lost by sailors engaged in hunting sea cucumbers in the mid eighteenth century. At first, it had been thought that the swivel gun had been lost by sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers.
DENIZLI, TURKEY—A painting of a leopard has been found on the wall of a third-century shop in the ancient city of Tripolis. "We know that the walls of the important buildings in the Roman era were covered with frescoes,” said Bahadir Duman of Pamukkale University. The frescoes depict other animals and plants as well. The leopard will be studied by zoologists and may become a symbol of Denizli’s Buldan district.