SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Archaeologist Robin Torrence of the Australian Museum and her colleagues analyzed 15 obsidian artifacts from the Nanggu site in the Solomon Islands. It had been thought that these 3,000-year-old tools were applied to hides to make cloth, but according to a report by Live Science, early Polynesians employed few animal skins, and those that were used required little preparation. The team of researchers recreated the obsidian tools by shaping a short, sharp point on naturally occurring flakes of volcanic glass. Then they experimented with creating tattoos on pigskin with black charcoal pigment and red ochre. Both the ancient tools and the new ones showed similar signs of wear, including microscopic chipping, rounding, and blunting of the edges. In addition, residues of blood, charcoal, and ochre were found on the ancient tools. Torrence thinks that archaeologists could look for comparable obsidian tools at sites where tattooing might have been practiced, since human skin is rarely preserved in the archaeological record. To read in-depth about evidence of tattooing in the archaeological record, go to "Ancient Tattoos."
MOSCOW, RUSSIA—Scientists led by a team from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) used ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry to analyze oxygen molecules in bitumen samples taken from a fifth-century B.C. amphora found near the Black Sea. According to Greek Reporter, the ancient Greeks used bitumen in construction, medicine, and warfare. The researchers think this amphora may have been used to collect bitumen on the Taman Peninsula, where there are petroleum seeps. The amount of oxygen in the sample from the amphora suggests that it had been exposed to ozone and had been degrading for about 2,500 years. Evgeny Nikolaev, head of MIPT’s Laboratory of Ion and Molecular Physics, explained that this analysis of ancient bitumen has helped scientists understand how petroleum changes over long periods of time. He added that the use of ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry could help archaeologists learn more about goods and trade routes in the ancient world. For more on the study of amphoras, go to "Trash Talk."
TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Evidence of cannibalistic behavior among Neanderthals living in northern Europe between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago has been discovered in well-preserved bone fragments from the third cavern of the Goyet caves in Belgium, which was excavated nearly 150 years ago. A team of researchers from the University of Tübingen and the University of the Basque Country identified 99 Neanderthal bone fragments, thought to represent the remains of four adolescents or adults and one child, from the collection. A third of those remains bear cut marks, pits, and notches, interpreted by the researchers as evidence that the individuals had been skinned and cut up and had marrow extracted from their bones. “The many remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed the same way,” Hervé Bocherens of the University of Tübingen said in a report by The Sydney Morning Herald. Marks on a few of the Neanderthal bones from the site indicate that they had been used as tools. Mitochondrial DNA analysis revealed that the Goyet Neanderthals resembled Neanderthals from Germany, Croatia, and Spain. This suggests that Europe’s Neanderthal population was small. For more, go to "Colonial Cannibalism."
OXFORD, ENGLAND—Did climate instability in southern Africa inspire the technological advances of the Middle Stone Age? A team led by Patrick Roberts of the University of Oxford analyzed the stable carbon and oxygen isotopes in ostrich eggshells, animal remains, and shellfish to learn about environmental conditions at Blombos Cave, occupied between 98,000 and 73,000 years ago, and Klipdrift Shelter, occupied between 72,000 and 59,000 years ago. The scientists found that changes in the environment, including changes in vegetation, aridity, rainfall seasonality, and sea temperature, may not have been directly linked with cultural advances, such as the use of bone tools, ochre production, and personal ornamentation, at these two sites. “This suggests that we have to consider that other factors drove human innovation at this stage in our species’ evolution,” Roberts said in a report by the International Business Times. For more on archaeology in South Africa, go to "The First Spears."
CAMPO BELO DO SUL, BRAZIL—A new analysis of pit houses in Brazil’s southern highlands suggests that the structures were occupied continuously for centuries. It had been thought that proto-Jê pit houses were lived in intermittently, but new radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modeling indicate that a dwelling in Campo Belo do Sul was occupied from 1395 to 1650. Researchers from the Universidade de São Paulo, the University of Reading, Unisul, and Central Universitário Univates, and the University of Exeter found 12 preserved floors in this house, five of which were covered by burned and collapsed roofs. Homes were also expanded outward as needed with different building techniques to complete the renovations as time passed. The team also found evidence that the proto-Jê cultivated plants, and had burial rites that suggest social hierarchies were in place. “We now know more about the way these groups lived, and are able to challenge the view, dominant until relatively recently, that these were marginal cultures in the context of lowland South America,” lead researcher Jonas Gregorio de Souza said in a UPI report. For more, go to "Off the Grid: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil."
LEICESTER, ENGLAND—A team of archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services excavated 83 skeletons in a Late Roman cemetery in Leicester’s West End. In one of the burials, they found the remains of a middle-aged man who had been buried wearing a type of belt often worn by soldiers stationed on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. “The survival of the delicate thin sheet bronze belt plate is remarkable,” post-excavation manager Nick Cooper told the Leicester Mercury. The belt plate, decorated with interlocking spirals, was probably riveted to a wide leather belt or girdle. It had a thinner strap, capped with a tapered strap end, that ran through the buckle to secure it. The strap end features crouching dogs on either side, while the buckle bears images of dolphin heads. The condition of the man’s skeleton supports the idea that he had been a soldier. The researchers found evidence of a healed fracture in his left forearm, perhaps from warding off a blow with a raised arm, and signs of muscle damage in his upper right arm and shoulder. The muscle damage could have been caused by repeated throwing and lifting. To read about another discovery in Leicester, go to "Richard III’s Last Act."
BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA—Archaeologists and volunteers say they have found the site of the Battle of Port Royal Island, fought on February 3, 1779, in which American troops led by General William Moultrie defeated British troops led by General Augustine Prevost. Archaeologist Daniel Battle of Cypress Cultural Consultants located “a big field fire,” including cannonballs and canister shot, while searching the area with a metal detector. “We started finding these large amounts of artillery—leaded shot ... we could literally look at patterns forming on the ground from this shot. We could draw a geometric line back to the position of where we could predict the American artillery sitting,” Battle told Bluffton Today. Now the researchers are working to protect the site, located in part on privately owned land. “It was not a strategically important battle, but it was definitely something the Americans needed very badly psychologically,” Battle explained. For more, go to "Off the Grid: Colonial Dorchester, South Carolina."
MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Students from the University of Exeter were excavating a pit at a prehistoric village site in South Dakota when they unearthed the remains of a bison. Their professor, Alan Outram, told The Mitchell Republic that the animal’s pelvis, spine, tail, and foot bones were found intact. The students also uncovered some of the bison's ribs and portions of the legs. Outram thinks hunters killed the bison in the summer, then threw the bones into a trash pit after it was butchered. The meat may have been cooked with hot rocks. “That sort of food culture is really a part of their identity,” he said. For more, go to "Bison Bone Mystery."
RAJASTHAN, INDIA—A 5,000-year-old industrial production center featuring furnaces, hearths, and mud-brick structures has been found in northwest India between two channels of the Ghaggar River. According to a report in Frontline, the settlement, occupied for more than 1,000 years, lacked the fortification walls, streets at right angles, citadel, and area for traders and craftsmen usually seen in Harappan sites. One of the furnaces, used for smelting gold and copper, had a platform where the smith could sit and blow through an underground tube to the fire pit. Nearby hearths were used to produce gold jewelry and copper fish hooks and spear heads. Among the artifacts recovered by the team were a copper stylus wrapped with gold foil. Pottery, beads, and jewelry made of shells, carnelian, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, steatite, and amazonite were also produced in the site’s workshops. Researchers from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) think the site may have been abandoned because of climate change or flooding. For more, go to "India's Village of the Dead."
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Archaeologists have reconstructed the possible funeral rites of a 45-year-old woman thought to have been a shaman in northern Israel some 12,000 years ago. Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut say the oval grave was first dug out of the bedrock floor of a cave called Hilazon Tachtit, and was then lined with layers of mud, limestone, and other sediments. Shells, gazelle horn cores, and tortoise carapaces were added and covered with a layer of ash and stone flakes. The body was placed in a squatting position, with tortoise shells propping the head and pelvis against the walls of the grave. Animal bones and additional tortoise shells, probably the remains of a ritual meal, were placed around and on top of the body, which was then covered with limestone blocks. The researchers think the grave was then filled with garbage from the funeral feast, before a large triangular block of limestone was finally placed over the grave. “The significant preplanning implies that there was a defined ‘to do’ list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order,” Grosman said in a Live Science report. For more, go to "12,000-Year-Old Village Unearthed in Israel."
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland and colleagues analyzed the age and geological source of stone adzes discovered in the Tangatatau rock shelter on Mangaia Island. Adzes, used in Polynesian societies to clear land for farming and to build houses, canoes, and bowls, would have been necessary tools for colonizing new lands. The researchers found that the material for making the tools may have come from as far away as the Austral Islands, American Samoa, and the northern Marquesas. This trade contact, over as much as 1,500 miles, is thought to have lasted from A.D. 1300 to the 1600s. “The colonization of Oceania is the greatest maritime migration in human history and Polynesians were really at the top of the game of voyaging and return voyaging and ... bringing all the necessary items to settle and found a new colony,” Weisler told ABC News Australia. He thinks perishable items and marriage partners, goods not left in the archaeological record, may have also made the journey. For more, go to "Canoe & Climate Shed Light on Polynesian Sailing Technology."
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Excavation of the site of the Mistletoe Hotel, which opened in Melbourne in 1855 during a Gold Rush, has recovered some 250,000 artifacts. The colorful hotel had a long history and provided a pub, livery stables, and a meeting space to immigrants landing in the city. “The excavation has uncovered a variety of items—some not seen before—reflecting an explosion of wealth coming into Melbourne and providing a really dynamic picture of the hotel’s past,” Jeremy Smith of Heritage Victoria told the Herald Sun. The artifacts include a gold stick pin and other jewelry; silver coins; beer, wine, champagne, cognac, gin, and rum bottles; a hand gun; a jar lid for “Highly Scented Russian Bear’s Grease;” ceramic figurines; utensils; pipes; and a rising sun hat pin badge from the Australian Commonwealth Military Services. An apartment building will be constructed on the site, which had been covered and protected with a parking lot. For more, go to "Rogues' Gallery: The Convicts of Early Australia."
BURNABY, CANADA—While scientists continue to wait for a geological date for Homo naledi, Mana Dembo of Simon Fraser University and her colleagues estimate that the hominid, which had humanlike hands, feet, and teeth, lived some 912,000 years ago. According to Science News, Dembo and her team compared skull and tooth measurements of Homo naledi to the rate of change of skull and tooth features in hominids with known geological dates. She noted that the ages calculated for other hominids were close to dates obtained through the dating of fossils and sediments, but that in a few cases, the estimates were off by 800,000 years or more. Based upon skeletal similarities to Homo erectus, it had been thought that the newly discovered species, discovered in a remote underground cave in South Africa, lived between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago. Dembo adds that further analysis of measurements of limb and trunk bones could help clarify how Homo naledi fits into the evolutionary tree. For more on Homo naledi, go to "A New Human Relative."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—British anatomists made greater use of the remains of infants and stillborn or miscarried fetuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than had been previously thought, according to a report in Live Science. The corpses most readily available to anatomists, those of criminals and the very poor, tended to be of adult men, which meant that younger corpses were more highly valued. Researchers have looked at a University of Cambridge collection including 54 infant and fetus specimens dating from 1768 to 1913 and concluded that cadavers of the young were more likely to be kept as part of medical collections than those of adults. Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, notes that special care was taken when preparing infant and fetal bodies and that researchers learned much about how the body develops through studying them. “They could see for the first time how the bones grow at different ages,” he said. Many of the infant bodies appear to have come from workhouses and poorhouses, while others may have come from illegitimate births, which were highly stigmatized, leading to instances of infanticide. For more on the study of cadavers, go to "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."
CARTHAGE, TUNISIA—Haaretz reports that archaeologists digging at the site of the Roman-era Circus of Carthage have discovered a water system that was used to cool down charioteers and horses during races. Excavations led by Tunisia’s National Heritage Institute and the German Archaeological Institute have revealed water-resistant mortar at the median strip of the circus, suggesting water basins were placed there. It’s likely that circus workers would have dipped amphoras into the basins and then sprinkled water on passing horses and chariots. Similar basins have been found at a circus outside of Rome and they are depicted on a mosaic from Carthage that shows the circus. The team also has two other sections of the site under excavation, at the spectators section and at an older Punic-era building that was torn down to accommodate the circus. To read more about chariot racing in antiquity, go to “Artifact: Statuete of an Auriga (Charioteer).”
NANJING, CHINA—A skull bone that may have belonged to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was discovered in China hidden inside a model of a stupa, or Buddhist shrine used for meditation. A report in Live Science explains that the 1,000-year-old model, which measures around 4 feet by 1.5 feet, was found inside a stone chest in a crypt under the Grand Bao’en Temple in Nanjing. Inscriptions engraved on the chest explain that it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (r. A.D. 997-1022) during the Song Dynasty. An inscription found inside the chest explains that after the Buddha entered paranirvana, breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, his remains were divided into 84,000 shares, of which 19 were sent to China. These included the skull bone, which was found inside a gold casket, which was itself inside a silver casket. The archaeologists who made the discovery are agnostic as to whether the bone actually belonged to the Buddha. Buddhist monks have since buried the bone in another temple. For more, go to “Buddhism, in the Beginning.”
PEMBROKSHIRE, WALES—Excavations at an early medieval chapel graveyard on a beach in southwest Wales have revealed Christian burials dating to the early sixth century, making them contemporaries of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. BBC News reports that analysis of skeletons found at similar sites in the region shows that some belonged to people who were not local to the area, but had been born in continental Europe and Ireland. Initial results of the recently discovered remains suggests similar diversity in the group. The Dyfed Archaeological trust is conducting the excavation of the cemetery because the burials are at risk of being washed out to sea. For more on archaeology in Wales, go to "Hillforts of the Iron Age."
KØGE, DENMARK—Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen thinks that a fire was deliberately set 1,000 years ago at the Viking castle Vallø Borgring, and has requested the assistance of police dogs and a fire safety investigator. “The outer posts of the east gate are completely charred, and there are signs of burning on the inside,” he told The Copenhagen Post. The unfinished structure, built on a man-made plateau, is one of five known ring fortresses in Denmark, and is thought to have been the last one built by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. “Our theory right now is that other powerful men in the country attacked the castle and set fire to the gates,” Ulriksen added. For more, go to "Bluetooth's Fortress."
DEVON, ENGLAND—A medieval manor known as North Hall is being excavated in the village of Widecombe in southwest England. A ditch at the edge of the site is thought to have been a moat that was coupled with an earthwork to defend the house. “We think it was attacked at least twice in the Middle Ages by brigands on the moor,” Mike Nendick, Dartmoor National Park spokesperson, told The Plymouth Herald. The team of archaeologists and volunteers has also recovered cobbles, a section of wall, flag stones, pottery, post holes, palisades, and wooden beam slots. “The people who lived here would have been powerful as it would have been a really high-status site,” he explained. For more, go to "The Many Lives of an English Manor House."
NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, prehistoric peoples living in what is now Western Europe may have built megalithic tombs as tools for observing the night sky and tracking the movements of the stars. “Different regions had their own traditions and architectural styles, but they are all variations on a theme,” said Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. Spending the night inside these structures may have been part of a rite of passage that included watching the sky at dusk and dawn. In particular, passage graves, which have a large chamber accessed through a long, narrow entry tunnel, may have helped early astronomers see faint stars on the horizon. “The entrance creates an aperture as large as ten degrees through which your naked-eye view is restricted,” Brown said. Fabio Silva of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David added that knowing the positions of the stars at specific times of the year may have helped people time seasonal migrations. For more, go to "An Eye on Venus."