CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—A stack of photographic negatives from Ernest Shackleton’s last Antarctic expedition have been recovered and developed by researchers from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in New Zealand. They found the negatives in a box in a hut at Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Scott had died in 1912 while racing to the South Pole. Three years later, ten stranded men from Shackleton’s expedition took shelter in the hut. Known as the Ross Island Party, the men lived on seal meat and supplies until they were rescued in 1917. The moldy, damaged negatives yielded images of expedition geologist Alexander Stevens, the ship Aurora, icebergs, and the Ross Sea. “It’s an exciting find, and we are delighted to see them exposed after a century. It’s a testament to the dedication and precision of our conservation teams’ efforts to save Scott’s Cape Evans hut,” said Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—The 5,000-year-old site of Mashabei Sadeh, located in the Negev Desert, consists of some 200 ancient structures near dry riverbeds that flowed during the rainy season. Did the residents use these limited resources to grow crops and keep herds to sustain themselves? Zach Dunseth is excavating Mashabei Sadeh as part of the Negev Highlands Research project, directed by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University and Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute. Dunseth looked for coprolites, which would be evidence of animal husbandry and might contain phytoliths of cultivated plants. But no coprolites were found at Mashabei Sadeh. “No animal pens, no faunal remains, no stone tools like sickle blades, and most of all, no dung…. This leads us to believe that this large settlement was probably sustained by some other form of economy,” he said. A smaller settlement nearby did contain some dung, however. “There must be an explanation hidden somewhere in the ground, but at this point what we have are only hints of something greater, of Mashabei Sadeh being part of a far larger economy,” he added.
BEIJING, CHINA—Scientists at Tsinghua University have cleaned and reassembled a collection of 2,500 thin bamboo strips dating to 305 B.C. that had once been held together with string to form 65 ancient texts. Feng Lisheng, a historian of mathematics at the university, explained that one of the texts, written all in numbers on 21 of the bamboo strips, is the world’s oldest example of a multiplication table in base 10. It may have been used to calculate the surface area of land, crop yields, and taxes. “Such an elaborate multiplication matrix is absolutely unique in Chinese history,” he said.
MELBOURNE, FLORIDA—Paleoecologist Crystal McMichael of the Florida Institute of Technology has developed a model to predict where pre-Columbian people may have lived and farmed in the Amazonian rainforest. Poor soil quality had led archaeologists to believe that large-scale farming would have been impossible, but recent discoveries of earthworks and roads suggest that cities did exist. Areas of darker soil containing charcoal and pottery shards, known as terra preta, or “black earth,” suggest that pre-Columbian residents of the rainforest enriched the soil for farming themselves. McMichael and her team analyzed the location and environmental data from some 1,000 terra preta sites and concluded that the worked earth is most likely to be found in central and eastern Amazonia, on bluffs overlooking rivers near the coast. The new model could help researchers discover possible archaeological sites.
RABAT, MOROCCO—An examination of the skeletal remains of 52 sedentary hunter-gatherers who lived in Morocco more than 13,000 years ago has revealed that 49 of them suffered from tooth decay in more than half of their surviving teeth. Scientists blame the sticky, high-carbohydrate and nutty plant foods in the diet consumed at the Grotte des Pigeons complex at Taforalt, which included snails, sweet acorns, pine nuts, and pistachios. “At a certain point, the tooth nerve dies but up until that moment, the pain is very bad and if you get an abscess the pain is excruciating because of the pressure on the jaw. Then, of course, the bone eventually perforates and the abscess drains away, and we see this in a lot of the jaw remains that we studied,” said Louise Humphrey of London’s Natural History Museum.
PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Paleoanthropologist William Kimbel of Arizona State University and his colleagues have examined the base of a partial cranium of Ardipithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million-year-old primate known for its ape-like tiny brain and grasping big toe for climbing, and more human-like small teeth and and upper pelvis capable of bipedal locomotion. Kimbel’s results are in line with earlier studies that show the base of Ardi’s cranium links it to 3.4 million-year-old Australopithecus skulls and those of modern humans. “Given the very tiny size of the Ardi skull, the similarity of its cranial base to a human’s is astonishing,” he said.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry has announced that more than 1,500 looted artifacts have been recovered by police during the raid of a house in a Cairo suburb. Statues, amulets, and limestone false doors that are usually found in tombs were recovered. One of the suspects was also in possession of ammunition. “The variety of the seized antiquities indicates that they are the result of illegal digging by armed gangs,” said Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.
BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—Michael Jacobson of Binghamton University wants to know if there are any archaeological traces of the Battle of Chemung, part of a strategically important offensive that took place in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. The Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of the Continental Army first attacked the village of New Chemung, a base for British loyalists and their Native American allies, and burned it to the ground. Two weeks later, General Sullivan’s troops defeated the British loyalists and the Iroquois at the nearby Battle of Newtown. With the help of historic documents and the official map from the Sullivan expedition, a recent topographical map, and a geographic information system, Jacobson and his team were able to examine the cornfield where they think the Battle of Chemung took place with a magnetometer. Tests should reveal if their finds date to the late eighteenth century. “There was a local push to highlight the fact that Chemung was a separate battle from Newtown, and also to help preserve the landscape,” Jacobson explained.
STORRS, CONNECTICUT—Colonial-era roads and farmsteads have been spotted in Connecticut and Massachusetts using high-tech, LiDAR scanners that use laser light pulses to generate images of surface features hidden by forest growth. “A great deal of New England is now forested, and a lot of people don’t know it wasn’t always that way. There was a lot of subsistence farming across New England, but with industrialization and people heading west to farm, people abandoned these homesteads and the forests started covering everything,” said Katharine Johnson of the University of Connecticut.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Archaeologists can learn a lot about a Mediterranean shipwreck by examining the surrounding underwater ecology, according to information presented at annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America by Derek Smith, a researcher at the University of Washington and a member of the RPM Nautical Foundation. He says that the types of growth of underwater creatures on amphoras and other artifacts can tell archaeologists whether or not they have been disturbed over time. And in return, the creatures that cling to ancient amphoras can provide ecologists with unique information about settlement and recruitment processes. The data collected by the RPM Nautical Foundation on the shipwrecks of the Mediterranean Sea and its underwater creatures will become part of the Organization for Mediterranean Archaeology, Geology, and Ecology database.
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.