ENNISKILLEN, IRELAND—The unusual burial of a young woman has been unearthed at a crannog in County Fermanagh, leading archaeologists to wonder if she may have been murdered. “This person wasn’t laid out on their back in an east-west direction, which is normal for a Christian burial. The body seems to have been bundled into [the] position it was buried in,” said archaeologist Nora Bermingham. Further examination of her remains could reveal the cause of her death, which probably took place in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, during the later years of the settlement on the artificial island. More than 4,000 artifacts dating back 1,400 years have been recovered.
GALILEE, ISRAEL—A man-made pile of basalt boulders has been found on the floor of the Sea of Galilee. The monument is circular in shape, and rises 32 feet high. Scientists from the Israel Antiquities Authority think the structure may have been built in the third millennium B.C., when other megalithic structures, associated with fortified settlements, were built. Another theory suggests that the stones were dropped into the water to construct a gathering place for fish.
THURINGIA, GERMANY—The remains of some 70 people executed 700 years ago were found in a mound in eastern Germany, near the town of Alkersleben. Archaeologist Marita Genesis is studying the bones at the Thuringia State Office for the Preservation of Monuments. She has learned that one of the bodies had been tied up, one had been buried next to a strangulation chain, and a third had been buried with a sharp blade. “Some outlaws were hung so long by their necks that they decayed and fell down. Then they were contemptuously disposed of in unhallowed ground. There is no mention of this in any of the old documents,” explained historian and author Jost Auler. He is known for his work in the area of “execution site archaeology.”
YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—When lead cannonballs from Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, began to rust, they were sent to physicist Susan Kilcoyne of the University of Huddersfield. She fired neutrons at the cannonballs and found that they contained iron cores. But were the iron cores intended to lower the cost of producing soft lead cannonballs, or had the iron been hardened in order to increase the amount of damage caused to enemy ships? “They would probably have worked like a soft-nose bullet. They could be some of the earliest examples of armor-piercing projectiles,” said Alex Hildred of the Mary Rose archaeology team. Additional tests could help to determine if the iron cores were a technological advancement. It had been thought that such shells were not developed until the late nineteenth century.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—A collection of papers published in the current issue of Science represents the most complete investigation of Australopithecus sediba fossils to date. Discovered in 2008 in South Africa, scientists think that the two-million-year-old hominin may be the oldest direct ancestor of the human lineage. Its long, apelike arms and shoulder blades would have been good for climbing, and its fingers would have been capable of powerful grips. But Australopithecus sediba fingers may also have been able to make and use tools, although no tools associated with the fossils have been found so far. Its legs, trunk, and lower back suggest that Australopithecus sediba was able to climb trees and walk with a primitive, pigeon-toed gait. “These skeletons are just interesting, wonderful blends of characteristics,” said evolutionary anthropologist Steven Churchill of Duke University. Click here for more photos of the Australopithecus sediba composite skeleton.
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA— Archaeologist Douglas Kennett of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues decided to retest a lintel from the Maya site of Tikal to see if new technology would uphold previous studies of the Maya Long Count Calendar. In 1905, scholars developed a conversion formula to correlate the Maya calendar and the European calendar. The formula is based upon astronomical data and a few historical texts, but because the Long Count calendar fell out of use before the arrival of the Spanish, not much information was available to work with. In 1960, scientists obtained radiocarbon dates from two wooden lintels carved with dates and historical information at the Maya site of Tikal. Their results were in line with the European date obtained with the conversion formula. Kennett’s new radiocarbon dates and analysis of the lintel’s tree rings confirm the earlier work. “These events and those recorded at cities throughout the Maya lowlands can now be harmonized with greater assurance to other environmental, climatic, and archaeological datasets,” the team wrote.
PARIS, FRANCE—The imaging technology used in airport security scanners has detected a previously unknown ancient Roman image beneath a nineteenth-century fresco in the collection at the Louvre Museum. “We could not believe our eyes as the image materialized on the screen. Underneath the top painting of the folds of a man’s tunic, we saw an eye, a nose, and then a mouth appear. We were seeing what likely was part of an ancient Roman fresco, thousands of years old,” said J. Bianca Jackson of the University of Rochester. The technology is now being applied to other ancient works of art.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Antiquities Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced that a harbor and papyri dating to the third millennium B.C. were discovered at the site of Wadi el-Jarf, located on the Red Sea. A team of Egyptian and French archaeologists uncovered stone anchors, stone cutting tools, homes for the port’s workers, and 30 caves closed up with stone blocks bearing the name of pyramid-builder King Khufu. “The papyri, which provide detailed accounts of daily life and traditions at the time of the Old Kingdom, are considered the oldest ever found,” Ibrahim said.
PARIS, FRANCE—A Paris court ruled that an auction of religious items of the Hopi tribe of Arizona could proceed, despite appeals to suspend the sale from the Hopi tribe, the U.S. government, and actor Robert Redford. One of the 70 masks for sale was purchased by an association that will return it to the Hopi tribe. “The decision is very disappointing since the masks will be sold and dispersed. The Hopi tribe will be extremely saddened by the decision, especially since the judgment recognizes that these masks have a sacred value. The judge considers that the imminent damage (to the masks) is not sufficiently strong,” said Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer for the Hopi tribe. The Hopi tribe says that the masks were stolen sometime in the early twentieth century. “I am also very concerned about the Hopis’ sadness, but you cannot break property law. These are in (private) collections in Europe: they are no longer sacred,” said Gilles Neret-Minet, of the auction house behind the sale.
JAKARTA, INDONESIA—The 3,000-year-old burials of 66 people, in addition to chicken, dog, and pig bones, have been found in Sumatra’s Harimau Cave by Truman Simanjuntak of Indonesia’s National Research and Development Center for Archaeology. “It means that this cave was occupied intensely by humans and they continued to occupy it for a very, very long time,” he said. The cave also contains the first rock art to be discovered in Sumatra. “Up to now we have encountered up to 50 caves in the area and most of the caves contain archaeological evidence,” Simanjuntak added. Scientists from Australia’s University of Wollongong will join the National Research and Development Center for Archaeology in the continued study of Harimau Cave.
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Paleopathologist Frank Ruhli of the University of Zurich used a CT scanner to examine the teeth of Ötzi, the Neolithic man whose frozen mummy was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. “It’s surprising how bad condition he is in. We have the whole range of disease pathologies you can imagine,” said Ruhli. Ötzi’s diet, rich in milled grains, would have abraded the surface of his teeth and gums, eventually exposing the bone and loosening his teeth. He suffered from severe wear of his tooth enamel, several cavities, and severe gum disease. His right front incisor was also damaged, probably in a fight or an accident.
YORK, ENGLAND—While we often think of Ice Age hunter-gatherers tracking large game and traveling light, a new study of early Jōmon pottery fragments taken from 13 different sites in Japan suggests that people cooked fish, shellfish, and possibly marine mammals in pottery vessels as early as 15,000 years ago. Biomolecular archaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York and his team of scientists analyzed scrapings of charred bits from 101 ceramic vessels, most of which came from inland sites that had been located near rivers or lakes. Craig thinks that the people may have been traveling to the coast to catch fish, or catching salmon when they came upstream to spawn. “We weren’t expecting to get such conclusive results from charred deposits of this age,” he said.
LONDON, ENGLAND—Archaeologist Mike Pitts and scientists from the University of Southampton used digital imaging technology to record and analyze the carvings on the surface of the Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Easter Island, which is housed at the British Museum. This particular statue is thought to have been created around A.D. 1200 A.D., and then moved to a stone hut and intricately carved with motifs around 1600, at a time when the religious beliefs of the Rapa Nui were shifting to the cult of the birdman. “The Hoa Hakananai’a statue has rarely been studied at first hand by archaeologists, but developments in digital imaging technology have now allowed us to examine it in unprecedented detail,” said Graeme Earl of the university’s Archaeological Computing Research Group.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Road construction in the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood of Jerusalem has uncovered a ritual bath complex dating to the late Second Temple Period. The bath is notable because it was placed in an underground chamber that received rainwater from three collecting basins on the roof. The water was transported to the bath through channels. “It’s interesting to note that the bath conforms to all of the laws of kashrut, like collecting the water in it naturally, without human contact, and ensuring that the water does not seep into the earth, which is why the bath was treated with a special kind of plaster,” said Benyamin Storchan on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The bath was later used as a quarry and a cistern.
TRUJILLO, PERU—A new study of clamshells recovered from Moche graves indicates that frequent cycles of El Niño, followed by flooding and droughts, may have been a factor in the collapse of the Moche’s agricultural society. Cold ocean water is rich in nutrients and carbon, which is taken up by clams as they grow. During an El Niño, warm, nutrient-poor water replaces the cold water. These changes in carbon levels can be tracked in clamshells. “The people adapted but did it in a way that was uncomfortable. They faced a series of challenges and dealt with them in ways that must have been difficult, and unpleasant,” speculated geologist Fred Andrus of the University of Alabama. Scholars think that the resulting social upheaval required so many changes that the culture was eventually “transformed.”
FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE—Workers building a driveway at Eastern Flank Battle Park unearthed a 12-pound cannonball. Emergency personnel were called to the Civil War park, and they determined that the projectile was non-explosive and not dangerous. The cannonball was probably left after the Battle of Franklin, fought on November 30, 1864. “It’s one of those things that come off the property that will lend some credence to the idea that yeah, it really was a battlefield,” said Eric Jacobson of the Battle of Franklin Trust. Archaeologists expect that there are also prehistoric artifacts in the construction area, and sites linked to nearby Carnton Plantation, which served as a field hospital after the battle.
LONDON, ENGLAND—More than 10,000 artifacts have been recovered at a construction site on Queen Victoria Street, where a Temple of Mithras was discovered after World War II. The site, which was in the heart of the Roman city of London, sits along the banks of the buried Walbrook River. The waterlogged conditions preserved timber buildings, fences, clothes, leather items, writing tablets, and even a straw basket. An amber charm, a horse harness complete with ornaments and clappers, pewter bowls and cups, and a large collection of phallus-shaped charms were also found. There are more photographs of the artifacts at BBC News.
LONDON, ONTARIO—In 1845, British explorers led by Sir John Franklin set out for the Arctic in two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, only to become icebound. All 128 men were lost—the graves of some of them were eventually discovered on Beechey Island and King William Island. Chemist Ron Martin of the University of Western Ontario re-examined some of the bones of the Franklin expedition officers and crew. It had been thought that solder on poorly made cans of food, or even the lead water pipes in the ships, contributed to the poor health and confusion of the crew. But Martin says that the lead levels in the bones were too high to blame on the expedition’s stores. “The lead distribution is essentially uniform as might be expected from lifetime lead ingestion. There is no evidence for a sudden massive increase in lead during the latter part of any individual’s life,” he said.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Chemist Mark Benvenuto of the University of Detroit and his team employed X-ray fluorescence to analyze the contents of patent medicine bottles from the collection at the Henry Ford Museum. They found that a majority of the samples contained calcium, iron, and zinc, but many also contained lead, arsenic, and mercury. “What we’re looking at is a group of people who were getting towards what we now consider modern medicine; they were taking the first steps. I believe some were systematically going about trying to cure some disease or another—but in that mix there was probably a huckster or two,” he said. The research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.
NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Construction of a new railway station has uncovered three walls from the outer bailey of a twelfth-century castle. “The royal apartments were on a higher level than this. The royals may have walked down here at some point, but they would have spent most of their time up in the main royal areas,” said archaeologist Tim Upson-Smith. Pottery and animal bones, including a dog’s jaw, have also been found in the medieval level at the site. The castle, which had been used as a seat of Parliament, was demolished in 1662 under orders from King Charles II, and the site was cleared in 1859 to build the railway station.