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Third-Century Bronze Mirrors From Japan Projected Images

January 30, 2014

KYOTO, JAPAN—Ryu Murakami of the Kyoto National Museum thinks that two mirrors discovered in the Higashinomiya tomb in Inuyama may have been “magic mirrors,” which are thought to have originated in China. The patterns engraved on the back of the third-century bronze mirrors would have been projected onto a wall when sunlight reflected off the front. “Someone apparently noticed the phenomenon and intentionally shaped mirrors in this way. I believe they have something to do with sun worship,” he said. He recreated the two mirrors using copper, tin powder, and a 3-D printer to demonstrate how they would have worked. These are the first mirrors with “magic” properties to have been identified in Japan. “The finding could lead to reconsideration of the role of mirrors in ancient rituals. Sometimes, dozens of mirrors are found from the same burial mound. Theoretically, it’s not hard to imagine that they were lined up to project a number of images,” commented archaeologist Shoji Morishita of Otemae University.

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Israel’s Highest Court Will Rule on Fate of Roman Terraces

January 30, 2014

BATTIR, WEST BANK—The 2,000-year-old agricultural terraces of the Palestinian village of Battir could be damaged if a separation barrier is built by the government of Israel. Opponents to the plan, including Israeli environmentalists, conservationists, and the local villagers, argue that altering part of the site would damage its integrity and upset the balance of its ancient system of seven springs and a Roman pool. “A country has the right to raise security concerns. It doesn’t have the right to destroy a cultural heritage site. If you can strike a balance in order to protect a potential world heritage site through technology that also safeguards or advances security interests, then the obligation is on the state to do that,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

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Neanderthal Genes May Have Helped Homo sapiens Adapt

January 30, 2014

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Two teams of scientists have identified genome segments that they say modern humans inherited from Neanderthals. David Reich and Sriram Sankararaman of Harvard Medical School, and Joshua Akey and Benjamin Vernot of the University of Washington in Seattle, found segments of the modern human genome, using computational methods, that were likely to have originated hundreds of thousands of years in the past, but entered the modern human gene pool more recently. These gene segments were then compared with the actual Neanderthal genome sequence to create a catalog of Neanderthal genes in modern humans. Both teams found that Neanderthal genes that tend to be common in modern humans are related to the workings of cells on the outer layer of human skin and the growth of hair. The researchers speculate that the genes that survived were beneficial to modern humans, and those that died out were harmful to them. “We find these gigantic holes in the human genomes where there are no surviving Neanderthal lineages,” explained David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

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Giza’s Port City Revealed

January 30, 2014

TORONTO, ONTARIO—At a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, Mark Lehner of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) suggested that the long buildings that were thought to have housed the pyramid workers may have served as barracks for soldiers and sailors instead because of the charcoal remains of wood imported from the Levant that were found there. “What was all this cedar from the Levant doing in a common workers barracks?” he asked. The buildings, known as galleries, are located in a city near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids, and could have housed the crews of incoming ships, or the troops depicted in the tombs of officials and in temples. In addition, Lehner’s team has uncovered a basin near a town named for Queen Khentkawes, who may have been Menkaure’s daughter. The basin may have been “an extension of a harbor or waterfront” that would have been less than a mile from the nearest Nile River channel. (This is also where the archaeologists discovered a large dwelling where royal cult priests may have lived.) “Giza was the central port then for three generations, Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure,” Lehner added. 

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Remains of 55 Students Found at Florida Reform School

January 29, 2014

MARIANNA, FLORIDA—The remains of 55 bodies have been unearthed at the former Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle—almost twice the number that had been recorded in official documents in the early twentieth century. Local legends of brutality at the reform school, and the deaths and disappearance of boys, led to the investigation, led by Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida. Her team is using artifacts recovered from the burials, including shirt buttons, and DNA testing to try to find relatives of the deceased. “Locating 55 burials is a significant finding, which opens up a whole new set of questions for our team,” she said.

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Rome’s Oldest Temple

January 29, 2014

ROME, ITALY—Excavations at the site of Sant’Omobono, a medieval church, have uncovered what may be Rome’s oldest known temple, dating to the seventh century B.C. It had been built on the banks of the Tiber River, near a bend that acted as a natural harbor. “At this point Rome is trading already as far afield as Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt. So they build this temple, which is going to be one of the first things the traders see when they pull into the harbor of Rome,” said Nic Terrenato of the University of Michigan. The traders left behind offerings that were probably dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. The temple’s foundation was discovered below seven feet of water held back with metal sheets. The team of archaeologists could also see in the trench how the original path of the river had been diverted as the Romans added leveled hills and filled in lowlands to make the city flatter and drier.

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Shelters Unearthed at Camp Asylum

January 29, 2014

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Three pits have been found on the grounds of the South Carolina State Hospital. The site was once home to Camp Asylum, a Civil War-era prison camp where some 1,500 Union soldiers were held. They may have dug the pits as shelter during the winter of 1864-65, since the barracks at the mental hospital only held 400 men. Artifacts recovered in the excavation include a brass button embossed with an eagle; a copper straight pin; a moustache comb for removing lice; an iron mug; and a piece of woolen fabric that may have come from a uniform. Much of the site will not be investigated before new development begins in a few months.

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Was It Climate Change or the “Overkill Hypothesis”?

January 29, 2014

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—Are Paleoindian hunters responsible for the demise of North America’s megafauna? Matthew Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman of the University of Missouri, Columbia, compiled databases of radiocarbon dates of megafauna remains and Paleoindian sites in the northeastern United States. They found that although humans and megafauna coexisted in the region for about 1,000 years, most of the megafauna had already disappeared, after two major periods of decline, by the time that humans moved into the area. Environmental stresses and the climate change of the Younger Dryas period, a 1,300-year-long cold snap beginning 12,700 years ago, could be to blame for the massive extinctions.

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Ancient Teeth Yield Pathogen Genomes

January 28, 2014

HAMILTON, ONTARIO—DNA extracted from the teeth of two Justinian plague victims from Germany has been studied by a team of scientists in order to understand how future strains of the bacterium Yersinia Pestis could evolve. The Justinian Plague of the sixth century and the Black Death of the fourteenth century were caused by distinct strains of Yersinia Pestis. The strain that caused the Justinian Plague has died out, but the Black Death strain has evolved and mutated and is still causing outbreaks of disease today. “If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggests it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large-scale human pandemic,” said researcher David Wagner of Northern Arizona University.

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300,000-Year-Old Hearth Uncovered in Israel

January 28, 2014

REHOVOT, ISRAEL—A repeatedly-used hearth full of ash and charred bone has been uncovered in Israel’s Qesem Cave. The hearth measures more than six feet in diameter at its widest point, and was located so that many individuals could have used it. Bits of stone tools that may have been used for butchering animals were also found in and around the hearth. “[The finds] …tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago,” said Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science. But it is not clear exactly which hominins lived in the cave and shared this large campfire.

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Byzantine Church Found in Turkish Lake

January 28, 2014

ANKARA, TURKEY—A 1,500-year-old basilica has been discovered in western Turkey’s Lake Iznik. Mustafa Şahin of Bursa Uludağ University says that the ancient building can be seen from the shore. Excavations should help scholars determine who used the building. It may have been known as St. Peter’s Church, which is mentioned in early Christian writings. “We will share the findings with the public as soon as we get detailed information,” Şahin said.

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Two Poems Discovered on Ancient Greek Papyrus

January 28, 2014

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A second or third-century A.D. papyrus held in private hands has yielded two previously unknown poems written by the seventh-century B.C. Greek poetess Sappho. The first poem speaks of a sea voyage undertaken by a Charaxos, and a Larichos. The two have been thought to be Sapphos’ brothers since antiquity. Only a few words of the second poem, dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, survive. Both poems fit into the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” said papyrologist Dirk Obbink of Oxford University. He thinks the papyrus came from the Egyptian city of Oxyrynchus, where many ancient papyri have been discovered.

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DNA Clues to the Ancient Roman Practice of Infanticide

January 27, 2014

HAMBLEDEN, ENGLAND—Simon Mays of English Heritage continues to analyze the bones of Roman infants discovered near the site of Yewden Villa, which were first excavated in 1912. Mays and archaeologist Jill Eyers suggested two years ago that the babies had been killed at birth, based upon measurements of their arms and legs that indicated they were all newborns at the time of death. Now, DNA analysis suggests that boys had not been spared at the expense of girls. The researchers were able to obtain DNA from 12 of the 33 individuals. Of those, seven were female and five were male, a relatively even ration, according to Mays. And, none of the babies had shared a mother, making it unlikely that the burial site was used by prostitutes. “Very often, societies have preferred male offspring, so when they practice infanticide, it tends to be the male babies that are kept, and the female babies that are killed,” he explained.

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Europe’s Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers “Look the Same”

January 27, 2014

BARCELONA, SPAIN—An international team of scientists led by Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona has released information from a preliminary study of 8,000-year-old DNA obtained from a skeleton discovered in Spain’s La Braña Cave. The new information, when compared to the genomes of other early nomadic hunter-gatherers from across Europe, indicates that nomadic hunter-gatherers were a genetically and culturally more cohesive group than had been thought. In particular, La Braña man was unable to digest starch and milk, had dark skin and blue eyes, and had immunity against several known diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malaria. It had been thought that Europeans gained immunity from these diseases from domesticated cattle and sheep. But Lalueza-Fox suggests that “epidemics affecting early farmers in the [Middle East] spread to continental Europe before they went themselves.”

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Cuneiform Tablet Tells Giant Ark Story

January 27, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND—Irving Finkel of the British Museum has translated the text of a Babylonian tablet that he says is the original version of the story of Noah’s Ark. The 3,700-year-old tablet describes a giant, circular coracle with wooden ribs that was waterproofed with two kinds of bitumen. He adds that Hebrew scholars would have encountered such texts during the Babylonian exile. The tablet was brought to England after World War II by a returning airman, whose son has loaned it to the British Museum, where it will on display with an ancient Babylonian map of the world. The text of the flood tablet helps explain the details of the map and the edge of the known world, where the ark was said to rest.

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Window Reopened at Thirteenth-Century Castle

January 24, 2014

KILCHOAN, SCOTLAND—With the help of a stonemason, archaeologists have opened a window at Mingary Castle that was probably sealed 500 years ago. “Considering it’s been there so long, the mortar is incredibly hard, so it took a good half-hour and some gentle persuasion with a small pneumatic drill before they finally broke through,” said Jon Haylett of the Mingary Castle Preservation and Restoration Trust. The thirteenth-century castle, which overlooks the northwestern coast, had been fortified to withstand cannon fire. Earlier castle defenders would have used the windows to fire arrows and crossbolts down onto their attackers, in addition to using the windows for light and air. A groove around the window may have held a wooden board to close it when needed. The castle is being restored.

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Artifacts Suggest Philistines Settled in Jordan

January 24, 2014

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN—Links to the Sea Peoples, or Philistines, have been discovered in a building dating to 1100 B.C. unearthed at Jordan’s Tell Abu al-Kharaz. The Sea Peoples, descended from Southern or Eastern Europeans, settled in the Eastern Mediterranean. “We have, for instance, found pottery resembling corresponding items from Greece and Cyprus in terms of form and decoration, and also cylindrical loom weights for textile production that could be found in central and south-east Europe around the same time,” said Peter Fischer of the University of Gothenburg. The large, well-preserved stone building had two levels and defensive walls. “What surprises me the most is that we have found so many objects from far away. This shows that people were very mobile already thousands of years ago,” he added.

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Anatomical Specimens Unearthed in Scotland

January 24, 2014

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Some 60 bones from at least four adults and one child that were unearthed in a backyard in Edinburgh last year by consultants from GUARD Archaeology may have been used by medical students to study human anatomy in the early nineteenth century. The bones have small holes drilled in them that could have been used to articulate them with wire. Some of the bones also have shiny patches, suggested that they had been handled often. “Edinburgh’s medical schools acquired human remains legally from hangings, unclaimed poor, or, in fact, from illegally dug graves,” commented John Lawson of the City of Edinburgh Council Archaeology Service. These bones in particular may have been acquired illegally and then buried in order to hide them, or perhaps they were buried when they were no longer needed.

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Study Concludes Child Sacrifice Took Place in Ancient Carthage

January 23, 2014

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Archaeologists have been debating the truth of the claims made by ancient Greek and Roman propagandists that the Carthaginians offered their children as sacrifices to the gods since the early twentieth century, when cemeteries holding the cremated bones of small children packed into urns were discovered along with the remains of sacrificed animals. Now, an international team of scholars argues that the ancient Carthaginians did indeed sacrifice their infant children. “…When you pull together all the evidence—archaeological, epigraphic and literary—it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favors but fulfilling a promise that had already been made,” said Josephine Quinn of Oxford University. Based upon the number of burials that have been found, she estimates that 25 such sacrifices a year were made for a city of perhaps 500,000 people.

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Plants Were Used for Food and Ritual in Prehistoric Israel

January 23, 2014

MT CARMEL, ISRAEL—Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa, Robert C. Power of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Arlene M. Rosen from the University of Texas, Austin, have studied the use of plants in Raqefet Cave by members of the Natufian culture some 13,000 years ago. Last summer, the research team announced their discovery of impressions left by salvia and other species of mint under human burials in the cave. Phytoliths from other locations in the cave, including impressions in the rock that may have been used to grind or pound cereals, include wheat and barley grasses. Evidence of the grains was also found buried with the dead as part of what may have been an offering or a final meal. 

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