LINCOLN, ENGLAND—Examination of pottery from a widespread excavation campaign in eastern England supports the idea that there was a massive demographic collapse in the wake of the Black Death, which ravaged the country between 1346 and 1351. Because relatively few plague burials have been found, some scholars have doubted that the scale of depopulation was as great as medieval accounts suggest. But The Guardian reports that University of Lincoln archaeologist Carenza Lewis decided to test that hypothesis by using the relative amounts of domestic pottery recovered from different levels of some 2,000 standard test pits as a proxy for human population levels. Volunteers dug the pits in 55 rural locations known to have been occupied in the fourteenth century, and Lewis then analyzed the tens of thousands of pottery sherds that were recovered. Her study suggests the Black Death was responsible for an average population decline of 45 percent in the region, with some sites showing evidence of even steeper declines of up to 85 percent. To read more about medieval archaeology in this part of England, go to “Writing on the Church Wall.”
POCATELLO, IDAHO—The site where Union Army soldiers killed hundreds of Northwestern Shoshone in January 1863 has been identified, according to a report in the Idaho State Journal. The attack, known as the Bear River Massacre, took place at the confluence of Battle Creek and Bear River in eastern Idaho, but pinpointing it had been challenging since the river’s course has shifted multiple times in the past century and a half. Now, a team led by Idaho state archaeologist Ken Reid has used modern technology and maps made by soldiers who took part in the attack to determine that it took place around 2,300 feet north of where the creek and river join today. When Col. Patrick Connor and his 300 soldiers and cavalry launched their attack on January 29, 1863, Shoshone women and children tried to flee at the bottom of a nearby ravine. “I suspect it turned into a traffic jam and then a slaughter,” said Reid. For more, go to “Searching for the Comanche Empire.”
MIJIAYA, CHINA—A new study shows that ceramic pots and funnels unearthed at a Neolithic site in Shaanxi province were used in China's earliest known brewery. Stanford University archaeologist Jiajing Wang analyzed residues on the artifacts, which date to between 3400 and 2900 B.C. and found traces of the chemical compound oxalate, a byproduct of brewing beer. She also discovered residues left by grains, including barley, which came as a surprise to her, since the earliest barley thus far known in China has been found in Bronze Age sites dating to around 2000 B.C. The grain was first used by the ancient Mesopotamians for brewing beer. "It is possible that when barley was introduced from western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the grain was a good ingredient for beer brewing," Wang told Live Science. "So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the knowledge associated with the crop." To read more about archaeology in China, go to "Tomb Raider Chronicles."
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Archaeologists have used 3D printing technology to produce models of two wrecks that lie in waters off the United Kingdom, according to a report from BBC News. One wreck sits near Drumbeg and dates to the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Its identity has not been confirmed, but it may be the Crowned Raven, a Dutch trading vessel that sank in the bay in 1690 or 1691 while en route from the Baltic Sea to Portugal. The other wreck is the HMHS Anglia, a World War I hospital ship that was lost off Folkestone in Kent in 1915 after striking a German mine. Experts from Wessex Archaeology used a range of imaging techniques as well as historical resources to produce the models of the wrecks. "It's been a fascinating process to transform the light captured in the photographs and the sound captured by the sonar sensors back into solid objects through the 3D printing process,” said archaeologist John McCarthy. For more, go to “History's 10 Greatest Wrecks...”
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—The outlines of at least nine coffins have been discovered on the grounds of a primary school in the town of Leith, north of Edinburgh. The discovery was made as part of an excavation in advance of new building construction, which also turned up a lone skeleton earlier this year. “These excavations have unearthed what appears to be a complex cemetery thought to date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries,” John Lawson, an archaeologist with the City of Edinburgh Council, said in a report in the Edinburgh Evening News, “containing at least nine graves including adults and young children buried in coffins.” For more on archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."
LEEDS, ENGLAND—Excavations at the site of a future shopping center in Leeds have revealed the burials of at least 28 people, mainly children, who died between 1797 and 1848. The Yorkshire Evening Post reports that analysis of the remains shows that the people were in extremely poor health and some may have possibly died during an 1832 cholera outbreak. Jane Richardson of Archaeological Services WYAS, who led the research, says the condition of the remains confirms that living conditions in the city were particularly grim for the lower classes. “What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us,” said Richardson. “It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent." Bioarchaeologists found that at least nine of the children suffered from diseases such as rickets and scurvy. After being studied, the remains are slated to be reburied. To read more about nineteenth-century England, go to “The Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”
OXFORD, ENGLAND—Two newly deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to the third century A.D. contain spells that deal with love and control, according to a report from Discovery News. The papyri, which were written in Greek, were discovered as part of a larger cache more than 100 years ago in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and have been gradually studied and translated since then. One spell instructs the spell caster to burn a number of offerings in a bathhouse and write a spell on its walls calling on the gods to “burn the heart” of a woman who has withheld her love. The other, designed to force a man to obey the caster’s every command, instructs the caster to engrave a series of magical words onto a copper plaque and then affix it to something the man wears, such as a sandal. The spells were translated by Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, and both were written so the caster could insert a target of their choice. For more, go to “The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum.”
CAERNARFON, WALES—Archaeologists in northern Wales have unearthed the remains of a small medieval castle, reports the North Wales Chronicle. A team lead by Jane Kenny of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust spent two years working at the site, known as Han Gastell, which had previously been supposed to be an Iron Age hillfort. But instead of prehistoric fortifications, the team discovered the remains of a defended enclosure dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Kenney speculates that it was probably built by a minor noble and then occupied by no more than four generations before being abandoned. Post holes at the site indicated that the castle once had a large timber hall or tower and the discovery of a large amount of metal slag showed it had its own blacksmithy. The team also discovered decorative bronze and brass objects as well as an iron knife. To read more about archaeology in the area, go to “Letter From Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”
WASHINGTON, D.C.—In 1493, after his initial voyage, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, which was reprinted and distributed to spread information about the New World. According to a report in Live Science, a joint American-Italian investigation team has determined that one of the 80 surviving copies of the letter, donated to the Library of Congress, had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, where a forgery had been left in its place. The forged document, in addition to having mismatched stitching, lacked an original Riccardiana Library stamp. Investigators also found that bleach had been used to remove the Riccardiana Library’s stamp from the letter in the Library of Congress. “We are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware Charles M. Oberly III said in a statement. How the theft took place is still under investigation. To read about a forensic study of a map Columbus is believed to have consulted, go to "Reading the Invisible Ink."
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—According to The Cambodia Daily, Phon Kaseka, director of archaeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, is leading the excavation of one of 69 known kiln sites near Cheung Ek Lake that produced water jugs, cooking pots, vases, boxes, and ritual objects. During the wet season, this kiln would have been close to the edge of the lake, where boats could have picked up the pots for distribution throughout the Angkorian Empire. The earliest kilns in the area are thought to date to the fifth century. The kiln currently under excavation may date to between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. After the thirteenth century, local production is thought to have tapered off. Fewer than ten of the 69 kiln sites are intact, but economic development in the area will soon destroy all of them. “What we don’t know about, and what has probably been largely destroyed through development by now, is about inhabitants in the Phnom Penh area during the Angkorian period,” commented Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. To read more, go to "Letter From Cambodia: Storied Landscape."
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—City archaeologist Kay Hindes says that there were two missions before the Alamo, which was built by Spanish missionaries in 1724. “There were three locations of Mission San Antonio de Valero,” she said in a News 4 San Antonio report. The first site dates to 1718 and was only in use for about a year. Scholars aren’t sure why the mission was moved to the second location, but when a hurricane hit the region in 1724, the mission moved to the current site of the Alamo. Hindes has recovered pottery, beads, and nails at what she thinks was the mission’s first location. “I looked down and started seeing the metal and I literally, really, I just had to sit down on the ground because I was like ‘This is too incredible,’” she said.
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A genetic study of a sexually transmitted canine cancer, led by Elizabeth Murchison of the University of Cambridge, has offered clues to how dogs may have traveled around the world with their humans. (The disease is believed to have originated in a single dog some 11,000 years ago.) Scientists analyzed the DNA of 449 nine tumors taken from modern dogs in 39 countries. BBC News reports that at least five times over the history of the disease, mitochondrial DNA from the tumor was traded with its host, creating five major ancestral groups for the tumors that exist today. Additional mutations allowed the scientists to trace the tumor’s family tree. “We were able to estimate the time since the mitochondrial transfer events, by counting the number of mutations. And one of them really seems to just track around maritime trade routes, in the last few hundred years. We found it along the coast of West Africa, in the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, India, and some parts of southern Europe. You can just imagine those dogs on boats, which must have taken that tumor around with them,” Murchison said. To read about dogs in the archaeological record, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."
PORT ARTHUR, AUSTRALIA—Excavation of the exercise yard at the Port Arthur penitentiary building, a World Heritage site in Tasmania, has yielded artifacts related to the convicts’ leisure time. “The key thing about this space was keeping the convict population healthy; as if they are healthy then they can work,” Tuffin told ABC News Australia. According to the report, the yards at first had shelters with fireplaces for the men. Then, in the 1860s, toilets and washing areas were added. “You don’t normally get that form of hygiene and treating waste until the 1880s,” Tuffin explained. The 1,600 artifacts recovered from the site include square and circular gambling tokens made of lead, slate, and ceramic; buttons; and clay pipes. Gambling was not allowed in the prison, so the tokens were probably smuggled into the yard. Many of the clay pipe stems bear the teeth marks of their owners. One pipe bowl features images of Napoleon and Wellington and may have been made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. To read more about prisoners on Tasmania, go to "Convict Mothers."
WARSAW, POLAND—A team from the Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw is excavating the Church of Raphael, part of a royal complex of buildings at the site of Dongola, the capital of Makuria—a medieval kingdom located in what is now northern Sudan. The church’s pulpit was made with hieroglyph-inscribed granite blocks repurposed from a pharaonic temple. Images of archangels, angels, priests, saints, and officials of the Nubian kingdom were painted on smooth lime wall plaster with expensive pigments. Each person depicted in the paintings was also identified and described. One of the inscriptions records a meeting at the church attended by the bishops of Makuria, the archbishop of Dongola, and the king. “The church was founded by King Joannes. Until now we did not know much about him. The inscription proves that he was an important person in the hierarchy of the church and had considerable political influence,” archaeologist Wlodzimierz Godlewski said in a Science & Scholarship in Poland report.
HEREFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—Experts from Historic Royal Palaces examined a richly embroidered altar cloth kept in a glass case at St. Faith’s Church, Bacton, and determined that it dates to the late sixteenth century. Tradition has associated the cloth with Bacton native Blanche Parry, who erected a monument commemorating her years of loyal service to the Queen at the church. Made from cloth of silver, the fabric has shaped seams at the back that suggest it may have been a skirt panel in a court dress at one time. During the Tudor period, sumptuary law limited the wearing of cloth of silver to the royalty and the highest echelons of the aristocracy. Historians have not found any documentation linking the altar cloth to Elizabeth I, but it is similar to the garment worn by the Queen in the “Rainbow portrait,” and may have been given to Parry as a gift. “This is an incredible find. Items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of,” Tracy Borman, joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said in a BBC News report.
BATH, ENGLAND—Archaeologists excavating rarely seen areas of the Roman Baths under York Street and Swallow Street have found traces of red-painted plaster on the outside wall of the Great Bath. According to a report in The Bath Chronicle, the building may have been painted that color during the Roman period. Samples of the materials have been sent to Bournemouth University for analysis, where specialists will try to determine where the building materials in the different phases of construction originated. The excavation team has also found evidence of the earliest phases of the Roman Baths, a second bath beneath York Street, the footings of the Roman walls of the Great Bath, and Roman floor levels to the south of the Great Bath. The project will create a new learning center and a World Heritage Center. “It’s fascinating to see new finds being unearthed. When the new center opens these spaces will form part of a state-of-the art education center, which will include a digging pit where school groups can uncover replica Roman objects in an authentic setting,” said Councilor Patrick Anketell-Jones. To read more about Roman Britain, go to "Artifact: Eagle Sculpture."
MANOA, HAWAII—Workmen building a water pumping station in the ancient Egyptian city of Thmuis uncovered a nilometer that was probably constructed in the third century B.C., during the reign of the Ptolemies. A nilometer was a device used by the ancient Egyptians to calculate the water level of the Nile River during its annual flood, and therefore predict the success of the harvest and compute the tax rate for the year. Rising water from the river may have flowed through a channel, or from the rising water table, into the nilometer’s circular well, which was accessed by a staircase. One of the large limestone blocks in the nilometer bears a list of Greek names followed by numbers, which suggests that these people may have contributed funds to build it. “We suspect it was originally located within a temple complex. They would’ve thought of the Nile River as a god, and the nilometer was this point of interface between the spiritual and the pragmatic,” archaeologist Jay Silverstein of the University of Hawaii said in a National Geographic report. To read about another recent discovery on the banks of the Nile, go to "Cult of Amun."
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—Cribra orbitalia (CO), a condition in which the bone inside the eye sockets becomes porous, can be caused by iron deficiency anemia and is often used by anthropologists to assess the health and diet of prehistoric populations. It had been thought that this condition might have gone extinct, but when anthropologists from North Carolina State University and the University of the Witwatersrand examined 844 modern, historic, and prehistoric human adult and juvenile skulls for the prevalence of CO, they were surprised to find higher rates of CO in modern populations in both North America and South Africa. “We thought we might see some CO, but not to the extent that we did. The high rates may stem from the fact that these remains were part of forensic cases—they were often related to cases of homicide or neglect,” Ross said in a report in India Today. The team suggests that access to adequate nutrition and the presence of intestinal parasites are still problems for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and parts of the developing world. To read in-depth about the bioarchaeology of disadvantaged people in nineteenth-century London, go to "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."
CORVALLIS, OREGON—Live Science reports on the ongoing study of a 1,300-year-old carved and painted human mandible discovered in a ceremonial area at the Zapotec site of Dainzú-Macuilxó, located in southern Mexico. The jawbone is thought to have been worn as a pendant. The excavation team also recovered thousands of fragments of smashed ceramic whistles and figurines, figurine molds, and a kiln at the ceremonial site. The whistles may have made owl-like sounds, while the figurines may have represented Xipe Totec, a Mesoamerican god associated with human sacrifice and agriculture. But Pink and the researchers think the decorated human bones belonged to ancestors of the site’s residents, who were “probably going into the tombs of their ancestors and bring the remains of their ancestors out,” explained Jeremias Pink of Oregon State University.
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Billy Ó Foghlú of Australian National University says that horns played in southern India today are almost identical to those from Iron-Age Europe. “The musical traditions of south India, with horns such as the kompu, are a great insight into musical cultures in Europe’s prehistory. And, because Indian instruments are usually recycled and not laid down as offerings, the artifacts in Europe are also an important insight into the soundscapes of India’s past,” Ó Foghlú told Laboratory Equipment. Ó Foghlú’s research suggests that the ancient horns were often used as rhythm instruments, not for melody or harmony as modern Westerners might expect. He adds that almost identical instruments that have been unearthed together may be out of tune with each other, but the dissonance may have been intentional. To read more about music in the archaeological record, go to "Artifact: Chimu Funerary Idols."