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New Preservation Technique Hardens Old Bones

January 23, 2014

FLORENCE, ITALY—Researchers at the University of Florence have developed a process to help preserve fragile human bones unearthed at archaeological sites. Currently, bones are stabilized with vinyl and acrylic polymers, which can cause damage to the information that the bones contain. Inspired by the way sea animals strengthen their shells, Luigi Dei and his colleagues grew aragonite on skeletal fragments dating to the Late Middle Ages. The controlled growth hardened the surface and the pores of the bones, reportedly making them 50 to 70 percent sturdier. “These results could have immediate impact for preserving archaeological and paleontological bone remains,” they concluded.

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Christian Mosaics Unearthed in Byzantine Basilica

January 23, 2014

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Salvage excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of a construction project in the village of Moshav Aluma have uncovered the ruins of a 1,500-year-old basilica with mosaic floors. The large church was situated near a main road that connected Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast and Jerusalem, so it probably served as a center of Christian worship—one of the mosaics features a Christogram, an image made up of symbols that is surrounded by birds. Another section of mosaic contains the names ‘Mary’ and ‘Jesus’ as part of a dedicatory inscription written in Greek. The excavation also uncovered Byzantine glass vessels and a pottery workshop; early Islamic walls; and Ottoman garbage pits.

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Intact Grain Stores Unearthed at Çatalhöyük

January 22, 2014

POZNAŃ, POLAND—An intact store of grain has been unearthed at the Neolithic urban center of Çatalhöyük, located in central Turkey. According to Arkadiusz Marciniak of Mickiewicz University, the four vessels of barley and an extinct species of wheat had been kept in a small room that had white walls. The room was in the northeastern part of a residential building that had burned down some 8,200 years ago. 

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Stone Age Harpoon Discovered in Timor

January 22, 2014

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—A piece of a 35,000-year-old complex hunting weapon has been discovered on the Australasian island of Timor by a team led by Sue O’Connor of Australian National University. Wear on its notches and sticky residue suggest that the point would have been tied and glued to a wooden handle or inserted into a split hollow shaft, and used as a spear while hunting large fish at sea. Other complex weapons found in the region are only several hundred years old. 

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Why Do Adults Drink Milk?

January 22, 2014

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—The mutation that enables adults to digest milk appeared independently in several parts of the world over the past 7,500 years, and it spread rapidly. It had been thought that the genes for milk-drinking spread because they provided Northern European farmers, who lived in areas with little sunlight, with a boost of calcium and vitamin D. Evolutionary biologist Oddný Sverrisdóttir of the University of Uppsala tested DNA from skeletal remains of eight people who lived in sunny northeastern Spain some 5,000 years ago. She found that none of them had the milk-drinking mutation, even though one third of modern Spaniards can digest lactase. A check of their mitochondrial DNA showed that these people were in fact ancestors of modern milk-drinking Spaniards. So what happened that gave milk-drinkers the advantage? Sverrisdóttir speculates that early farmers ate yogurt and cheese long before they could digest raw milk. When their crops failed and the stores were eaten, they may have turned to milk in desperation. “During normal times, if you were well-fed and you had diarrhea for days, it wouldn’t matter much. But if you were already starving, this would mean the difference between life and death. People would not have lived long enough to get their genes into the next generation. This was the new super-food for people who could tolerate it,” she explained.

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High-Status Home Unearthed Near the Giza Pyramids

January 22, 2014

TORONTO, ONTARIO—A large house containing at least 21 rooms is being excavated to the south of Egypt’s Sphinx, where a 4,500-year-old urban site is located. In a mound near the house, archaeologists uncovered the hind limbs of young cattle (the forelimbs were probably offered to deities), the seals of high-ranking officials, and leopard teeth. Two leopard teeth were also found in the house. Richard Redding of the University of Michigan and Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), thinks that the teeth may have dropped out of a leopard-skin worn with the leopard’s head still attached. Illustrations from the Old Kingdom period depict high-ranking clergy wearing such garments. “We have very, very, high status individuals,” Redding said.

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How Big Were Ptolemy’s African War Elephants?

January 21, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—Adam Brant and Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and their colleagues conducted a genetic study of elephants, using their dung, to try to clarify an account of the Battle of Raphia in 217 B.C. written by the Greek historian Polybius. The Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy won the battle, but according to Polybius, his African war elephants were small and timid compared to the Asian elephants in the army of Antiochus III. African elephants are divided into smaller forest and larger savanna-dwelling species. Did Ptolemy perhaps fight with the smaller forest variety of elephant? Knowing that the range of African elephants did not extend into Egypt, Brandt thinks that Ptolemy probably traveled to Eritrea to find his war elephants. The team’s analysis concluded that today’s small, surviving population of elephants in Eritrea is related to the larger savanna variety, without genetic ties to forest elephants or Asian elephants. “Most likely, the Greek historian who wrote about the battle added in his own interpretation as to the relative size of the elephants. There were semi-mythological accounts in the ancient world that attributed great size to the elephants of India, and these were probably known to Polybius, and were likely the source of his belief that Indian elephants were the largest of all,” wrote Roca.

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Ancient Cultivated Rice Grains Unearthed in Japan

January 21, 2014

NARA, JAPAN—Uncooked grains of brown rice estimated to be between 2,600 and 2,400 years old, when intensive rice farming in paddies is thought to have begun in Japan, have been found. The 11 well-preserved grains, which did not have husks, were discovered in wet mud that protected them from the air. Tatsuya Inamura of Kyoto University will use DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating to identify and study the rice.

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Damage to Syria’s Archaeological Sites Seen From Space

January 21, 2014

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Satellite images have allowed scholars to monitor archaeological sites in Syria during the ongoing civil war there. Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Damascus Committee has identified moderate to severe war-related damage and looting at ten of the 30 sites that he analyzed. (It is known that six of the sites that showed no damage from space have well-documented war-related damage, however.) He reported his findings at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, and estimated that as many as half of Syria’s archaeological sites are badly damaged, including the Roman city of Apamea, where a military garrison has taken over a tourist restaurant and more than 4,000 holes have been dug with heavy equipment by treasure hunters.

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Greece and the Question of Privatization

January 21, 2014

NEMEA, GREECE—Retired archaeologist Stephen Miller has suggested that the government of Greece allow private companies develop the country’s underdeveloped archaeological sites in exchange for a share of the revenue generated by the tourists. The budget of the Ministry of Culture has been cut by 52 percent since 2010, resulting in fewer guards and services at vulnerable archaeological sites. Under the plan, all sites and artifacts would remain the property of the Greek government. “The Ministry of Culture does some things very well: it does conservation work extremely well, they are very good at setting up exhibitions. They are lousy businessmen,” said Miller, who excavated at the ancient city of Nemea for 40 years. Those opposed to the idea are concerned that less expensive, underqualified individuals could end up in charge of excavations and site interpretation. “Archaeological sites and the country’s monuments belong to the whole of society. The protection, promotion and management of these sites is the duty of the state, as stipulated in the Constitution and laws of this country,” reads a response from The Association of Greek Archaeologists.

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Additional Sican Tombs Discovered in Peru

January 17, 2014

LIMA, PERU—Additional Sican tombs have been unearthed at a 1,000-year-old cemetery in Peru’s northern Lambayeque region. The site was first discovered last month during a construction project, when archaeologists were called to the scene. “At the moment, specialists have discovered between 35 and 40 tombs which are undergoing a process of conservation and consolidation. Archaeological material related with these tombs has also been discovered,” said site supervisor Humberto Salini. Other artifacts include ceramics, textiles, and gold-plated copper items that have all been transferred to the Culture Ministry.

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Domesticated Dogs May Have Lived With Hunter-Gatherers

January 17, 2014

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—A new analysis of dog and wolf DNA collected from animals in areas of the world thought to be centers of dog domestication suggests that dogs and wolves split from a common ancestor between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. This date is before the human transition to agricultural societies, indicating that the earliest dogs may have lived with hunter-gatherers. The study also shows that dogs are more closely related to each other than to wolves. Any genetic overlap between modern dogs and wolves is probably the result of later interbreeding. “We also found evidence for genetic exchange between wolves and jackals. The picture emerging from our analyses is that these exchanges may play an important role in shaping the diversification of canid species,” said John Novembre of the University of Chicago. 

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Anglo-Saxon Remains Uncovered in Northamptonshire

January 17, 2014

NORTHAMPTONSHIRE, ENGLAND—The remains of four Anglo-Saxon adults and a pottery bowl dating to the sixth century were discovered near the River Ise during the excavation of a new habitat for fish. “The sixth-century date… suggests we’re looking at settlers—people who have come here to establish a small farmstead on very good agricultural land,” said archaeologist Jim Brown. The discovery of the graves had been kept a secret until they could be reburied with twice as much soil in order to protect them.  

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Bone Fragment Dates to the Time of Alfred the Great

January 17, 2014

WINCHESTER, ENGLAND—A fragment of a pelvis from a man who was between 26 and 45-plus at the time of his death has been found in a box of bones at Winchester’s City Museum. The bones, which have been dated to the ninth century, were discovered in 1999 during a dig at Hyde Abbey, but they were never tested due to a lack of funding. Scientists now think the bone fragment may have belonged to King Alfred the Great, or his son, Edward the Elder. “These are the bones that were found closest to the site of the high altar. As far as we know, from the chronicles and the records, the only individuals close to the site of the high altar who are the right age when they died and the right date when they died would be either Alfred or Edward,” said Katie Tucker of University of Winchester.

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Fisherman’s Family Hands Over Ancient Earthenware

January 16, 2014

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Several pieces of earthenware recovered from the Mediterranean Sea by a fisherman have been handed over to the Israel Antiquities Authority by a relative who inherited them. (Such vessels are sometimes brought to the surface by fishing nets.) Archaeologists determined that the oldest vessel in the collection is about 3,000 years old. Other pots date to the Roman and Byzantine periods. “The only thing we’ve asked of the Antiquities Authority is to tell us where the vessels are going, so that we can visit them with the grandchildren,” said Osnat Lester, who reported the collection to the Authority. 

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Italy Wants Antiquities Held in England Returned

January 16, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND—Responding to rumors that a British liquidator is selling off artifacts from the collection of disgraced antiquities dealer Robin Symes, Italian officials are reportedly considering suing for the return of an estimated 700 items from the collection, claiming that the artifacts were removed from the country illegally. The rumors suggest that the objects are being sold in the Middle East to start-up museums in order to recoup taxes owed by Symes’s bankrupt firm to the British government. “It would be good to have official announcements from all the governments concerned about the Symes case, so that everyone can learn the whole truth about the key questions: why are the objects identified by the Italian state not being sent to Italy? Are the other governments concerned claiming any objects too? If so, how many and which are they?” commented archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis.

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Forgotten Dynasty Discovered in Abydos

January 16, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—The name of the pharaoh Woseribre Senebkay, who lived some 3,650 years ago, has been found inscribed on the wall of his plundered, four-chambered tomb in Abydos. Fragments of his name had been seen on one list of Egyptian kings and queens, but was otherwise previously unknown to Egyptologists. “We discovered an unknown king plus a lost dynasty. It looks likely that all of the 16 kings are all buried there. …We now have the tomb for first or second king of this Abydos dynasty. There should be a whole series of the others,” said Josef Wegner of the University of Pennsylvania. Senebkay’s body had been mummified, but was pulled apart by tomb robbers. Much of his skeleton was recovered from the tomb, which contained reused materials from the adjacent tomb of an earlier pharaoh, Sobekhotep I. “It suggests that the king had economic challenges, which has to do with the period of struggle and fragmentation of kingdom,” Wegner added.

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Steel Manufactured in Scotland 2,500 Years Ago

January 15, 2014

EAST LOTHIAN, SCOTLAND—Scientists have determined that fragments of artifacts recovered from the Broxmouth Iron Age hill fort in the 1970s were forged from high-carbon steel. The objects, which date to between 490 and 375 B.C., may have been tools or weapons. “The process of manufacturing steel requires extensive knowledge, skill and craftsmanship. It is far from straightforward, which is why such an early example of its production tells us so much about the people who once occupied this hill fort,” said Gerry McDonnell of the University of Bradford. The site featured well-preserved roundhouses, hill fort entrances, and an Iron Age cemetery. 

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London Collection of Skulls Shows Signs of Violence

January 15, 2014


LONDON, ENGLAND—A reexamination of 39 skulls discovered 25 years ago near the London Wall has shown that the dead were most likely all victims of violence, even decapitation. “The level of violence here exceeds the level needed to kill someone,” said Rebecca Redfern of the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. The heads had been buried in a pit sometime between A.D. 120 and 160 and may have been collected by Roman headhunters who captured and killed Scottish barbarians. The heads may even have belonged to failed gladiators, but so far, no conclusive evidence of gladiatorial combat has ever been found in London.

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Statues Reportedly Removed From Archaeology Park in Colombia

January 15, 2014

SAN AGUSTíN, COLOMBIA—Precolumbian statues at the Bosque de las Estatuas archaeological park have reportedly been removed and replaced with cardboard-cutout images. The statues have been placed in a local museum, and will eventually be moved to Bogota for an exhibit in the national museum. “To me, it is a really big fraud,” complained one disappointed tourist.

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