LONDON, ENGLAND—An eighth or ninth-century gilded Celtic disc has been discovered within a lump of organic material that has been sitting in a storeroom in the British Museum for more than 100 years. Excavated in Norway by a British archaeologist in the late nineteenth century, museum curator Barry Ager thinks the artifact was probably crafted in Ireland or Scotland and then looted by the Vikings from a shrine or a reliquary. Rivet holes and a pin that converted the disc to a brooch were added by the Vikings. The brooch was then perhaps wrapped in textiles and placed in a wooden box before it was buried with a high-status Viking woman. “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye,” Ager said.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—At the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, scholars from Cornell University talked about their experiences of casting life-like wax masks of their own faces. Such masks, or imagines maiorum, were used in ancient Roman funeral processions to represent deceased male ancestors. The beeswax masks would have been expensive to produce and difficult to maintain over successive generations. “They were constantly transformed and probably never looked pristine, and I think probably in the end more like zombies than anything else,” said art historian Annetta Alexandridis.
CAIRO, EGYPT—The style of burial that King Tutankhamun received upon his death might have been intended to help reverse a religious shift brought on by his father, Akhenaten, says Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. King Tut was entombed with his heart removed, covered in a viscous black liquid, and with his penis erect. Ikram hypothesizes that the presentation may have been intended to evoke the god of the underworld, Osiris. The missing heart would have symbolized the burial of Osiris's heart after he'd been attacked by his brother Seth. The black liquid would have darkened Tut's skin, making him the same color as Osiris. And, as for the pharaoh's penis, its erect status might symbolize Osiris's powers of regeneration. Making King Tut appear as Osiris could have been an attempt to counteract his father's elevation of the sun disk Aten to the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—An analysis of the genomes of eight ancient Europeans by an international team of scientists, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Germany's University of Tübingen, contradicts the prevailing belief that Europeans are descendants of Middle Eastern farmers that mixed with dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers. The scientists studied DNA from seven hunter-gatherers found in Sweden and one woman found in Luxembourg, all dating to about 8,000 years ago. They found that modern Europeans are primarily made up of hunter-gatherers who migrated out of Africa 40,000 years ago, a later influx of Middle Eastern farmers, and a third population that the team named "ancient northern Eurasians," which ranged from northern Europe to Siberia.
CINCINNATI, OHIO—At the famed Palace of Nestor at the Bronze Age site of Pylos in southern Greece, University of Cincinnati archaeologist Emily Catherine Egan has found that ancient artists discovered a new way to impress visitors seeking an audience with the king. The painted plaster floor of the palace's throne room, dating to between 1300 and 1200 B.C., differs from other palatial floors of the era in that it combines depictions of both textiles and stone masonry. According to Egan, the combination of these two materials on the floor not only contradicted reality, but reinforced the king's aura of power. "It depicted something that could not exist in the real world, a floor made of both carpet and stone," said Egan. "As such, the painting would have communicated the immense, and potentially supernatural power of the reigning monarch, who seemingly had the ability to manipulate and transform his physical environment."
CAIRO, EGYPT—Japanese Egyptologists have discovered the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb, a New Kingdom official who was in charge of beer production for the temple of the goddess Mut. The team made the discovery while cleaning the area in front of another tomb that belonged to a statesman who served Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned from ca. 1391–1353 B.C. Khonso-Im-Heb's tomb is decorated with colorful paintings depicting his family, as well as Egyptian deities such as Osiris, god of the afterlife.
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."