TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Israel Finkelstein, Arie Shaus, and Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin of Tel Aviv University used computer programs to scan and analyze the handwriting on 16 ostracons dating to the seventh century B.C. All of the inscriptions were unearthed at the site of Arad, a frontier fort, and had been made within a span of a few months. The analysis suggests that at least six different people, ranging in rank from the commander of the fort down to the deputy quartermaster, had written these texts. All of the writers used proper spelling and syntax. Similar ostracons have been found at other border forts, suggesting that writing was widespread, at least within the Judahite army. Finkelstein thinks the ancient kingdom of Judah may have had an educational system, since literacy was not limited to the elite. “This is really quite amazing, that in a remote place like this, there was more than one person, several people, who could write,” he told Live Science. Finkelstein also claims that if literacy were widespread at the time, it would support the idea that portions of the Bible could have been compiled before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to "The Gates of Gath."
HOVD, MONGOLIA—The Siberian Times reports that researchers from Mongolia’s Khovd Museum have discovered a Turkik burial in the Altai Mountains. The grave is thought to have belonged to a non-elite woman who was buried with a sacrificed horse, an embroidered saddle and a bridle, a vase, a wooden bowl, a trough, an iron kettle, clothing, pillows, a sheep’s head, an embroidered felt travel bag containing sheep and goat parts, and a cup in a leather bag. “An interesting thing we found is that not only sheep wool was used, but also camel wool. We can date the burial by the things we have found there, also the type of hat. It gives us a preliminary date of around the sixth century A.D.,” said Khovd Museum researcher B. Sukhbaatar. To read about other finds from the Altai Mountains, go to "Iron Age Mummy."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—It had been thought that infectious diseases became more common among human populations some 8,000 years ago, when people became more sedentary and began living with herd animals. But scientists from the University of Cambridge and Oxford Brookes University say that some chronic infectious diseases and their causes, such as tapeworms, tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, and the virus that causes genital herpes, may be thousands of years older than had been previously believed, and that humans may have initially passed those diseases to their livestock. They may have also spread those diseases to Neanderthals, weakening the population. “Humans migrating out of Africa would have been a significant reservoir of tropical diseases. For the Neanderthal population of Eurasia, adapted to that geographical infectious disease environment, exposure to new pathogens carried out of Africa may have been catastrophic,” Charlotte Houldcroft of the University of Cambridge told The Guardian. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."
SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND—Wine was produced in the first-century A.D. on an industrial scale at Vagnari, an imperial estate in Italy, according to an excavation conducted by archaeologists from the University of Sheffield. The team, led by Maureen Carroll, uncovered the corner of a wine fermentation and storage room and three buried vats where wine could have been kept cool. “The vats were impossible to move—they were in the ground and stayed there for a long time and were reused year after year. The Roman agricultural writers said it was a good idea round late summer to clean out what was left, give them a good rub, and reline them with pitch,” Carroll told The Yorkshire Post. The scientists plan to analyze residues in the vats to try to determine what kind of wine may have been stored there. For more, go to "France’s Roman Heritage."
HAIFA, ISRAEL—Chemical analysis of glass unearthed at sites in Europe and from shipwrecks suggested that the beach sand and salt used to make the glass originated in Israel. “Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware,” Yael Gorin-Rosen of the Israel Antiquities Authority Glass Department told Discovery News. Archaeologists working with the Jezreel Valley Railway Project found fragments of flooring, pieces of vitrified bricks that could be from the walls and ceilings of the 1,600-year-old kilns, and raw glass chips. Gorin-Rosen and her team say raw glass was produced on an industrial scale at the site, sometimes in chunks weighing in excess of ten tons, and sold to workshops in smaller pieces across the Roman Empire, where it would have been melted again in order to produce glassware. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to "Off The Grid: Tel Kabri."
SOFIA, BULGARIA—Silver jewelry dating to the second half of the seventeenth century has been unearthed in northwest Bulgaria by locals who turned it over to the country’s National Museum of History. The treasure, which includes a tiara, two forehead adornments, earrings, ear tabs, and rings, is thought to have been hidden in a leather purse during the Chiprovtsi Uprising, when Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. The region of Chiprovtsi was known for its silver ore, discovered in the fifteenth century, and metal smiths. Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the insurgents were crushed by Ottoman troops in 1688 near the modern city of Montana, then known as Kutlovitsa, where the treasure was found. “The treasure was probably a family fortune,” according the National Museum of History.
ST. ATHAN, WALES—Construction work on a housing development was suspended after human skeletal remains and cremation pits were discovered by an archaeologist working at the site, located in the Vale of Glamorgan. “The council is advised by Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust, its professional advisors in such matters, that the correct procedures are being followed and the investigation is continuing,” a spokesperson for the Vale of Glamorgan council told BBC News.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—At the Ocean Sciences Meeting, marine microbial ecologists Leila Hamdan and Jennifer Salerno of George Mason University and marine archaeologist Melanie Damour of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reported on their investigation into changes in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. According to an article in Live Science, they said that an estimated 30 percent of the oil from the spill was deposited in the deep sea, where there are more than 2,000 shipwrecks. Those wrecks support a variety of ocean life, from microorganisms to bivalves, corals, and fish. So far, their research suggests that certain oil-eating microbes are flourishing, and that such a change in the environment could speed up the corrosion of steel-hulled wrecks. “We are concerned that the degradation of these sites a lot faster than normal will cause the permanent loss of information that we can never get back,” Damour said.
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A team of researchers, including Fernando L. Mendez, G. David Poznik, and Carlos D. Bustamante of Stanford University, and Sergi Castellano of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have examined DNA on the Y-chromosome of a Neanderthal male for the first time. According to a report in Science, DNA from this Neanderthal Y-chromosome, obtained from an individual who lived some 49,000 years ago at El Sidrón, Spain, was not passed on to modern humans when the two species interbred. (Modern Asians and Europeans have inherited one to three percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, but not on their Y-chromosomes.) The researchers found that the El Sidrón male had mutations in three immune genes that may have made it difficult for Neanderthal males to produce healthy male offspring with modern human females. To read more about what scientists are learning from Neanderthal DNA, go to "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."
WALLINGFORD, ENGLAND—A tiny chess piece that may have been part of a traveling set has been unearthed in the backyard at Wallingford Museum, located in southeast England. “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7 mm [about .8 of an inch] high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country,” museum curator Judy Dewey told The Oxford Times. The gaming piece, a bishop, is thought to have been carved from the tip of an antler in the twelfth or thirteenth century and is decorated with traditional roundels. The piece was found near Wallingford Priory, so the set may have been lost by a wealthy traveler who had been lodging there. “Walingford had an important Royal Castle close by and occasionally visitors were housed in the Priory—even the monks may have played chess,” Dewey said. To read more about chess and chess pieces in medieval Britian, go to "Artifact."
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A new study of the populating of South America, led by biologist Elizabeth Hadly of Stanford University, likens hunter-gathers to an “invasive species.” Hadley and her team compiled radiocarbon dates from 1,147 sites in South America to track the spread of people throughout the continent, and identified two phases of colonization. The first took place between 14,000 and 5,500 years ago, when she says the population reached about 300,000. During this period, human populations experienced “boom-and-bust cycles” as megafauna and other plant and animal species went extinct. “If we use up our resources, we will decline,” Hadly told Reuters. The population reached about a million people between 5,500 and 2,000 years ago. According to Hadly, this exponential growth in population can be attributed to the establishment of large societies that allowed people to “conquer” the environment. “Most lived in modern Peru, Ecuador, and northern Chile, as well as a smaller but substantial population of hunter-gatherers in Patagonia,” she said. To read more about the peopling of the Americas, go to "America, in the Beginning."
CHENNAI, INDIA—Divers, geologists, and archaeologists from Indian’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) say they have found a wall, a flight of stairs, and stone blocks off the coast of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mamallapuram, according to an article in The Times of India. The team was following up on eyewitness accounts from tourists at the ancient seaport, who reported seeing a row of granite boulders some 875 yards out when the shoreline receded during the 2004 tsunami. “Some of them are badly damaged due to strong underwater currents and swells. However, we could make out that they were part of a building complex,” said Rajiv Nigam, head of the NIO’s marine archaeology unit. The buildings may have been inundated during a tsunami in the tenth century A.D. To see a slideshow of remarkable images of India's extraordinary stepwells, go to "The Islamic Stepwells of Gujarat, India."
TOKYO, JAPAN—Akio Tanigawa of Waseda University has uncovered the remains of three people at the site of Krishitan Yashiki, or the Christian Mansion, a prison for Christian missionaries during the isolationist Edo Period (1603-1868). DNA analysis suggests that one set of remains may belong to Italian Jesuit priest Giovanni Battista Sidotti, who entered Japan illegally in 1708. Disguised as a samurai, he was captured and imprisoned until he died in 1714. “It is the first time we’ve found a near match of the bones of a foreign missionary,” Tanigawa told The Japan Times.
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—A digital 3-D model has been made of a skull thought to be the remains of a soldier killed at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The skull has been part of a museum collection since the early nineteenth century, and is said to have been recovered from an area of the battlefield where the Highlanders wrapped their plaids around their left arms and stooped low to attack Loyalist forces. The top of the skull bears an entry wound from a musket shot; there is an exit wound at the back of the skull. “We cannot say whether the skull fragment belongs to a Jacobite or one of the Government troops but the injury to the top of the head could be interpreted in a number of different ways," said Head of Archaeological Services Derek Alexander of the National Trust for Scotland in a press release. "It could be from someone, head down, looking at the ground as they charge forward, or an individual who has already been wounded and is on their hands and knees." To read more about archaeology in the region, go to "Letter From Scotland: Living on the Edge."
CARDIFF, WALES—Evolutionary biologist David Stanton of Cardiff University and his colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA obtained from 74 red deer bones from archaeological sites on the Scottish mainland, Orkney, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. It had been thought that the deer had been transported by humans from the Scottish mainland to the islands because even 22,000 years ago, when sea levels were at their lowest, the islands would have been too far away for the deer to reach them by swimming. Science reports that the genetic tests revealed 14 sets of variations, or haplotypes, in the Scottish deer, and ten of those haplotypes were new and found only on the outer Scottish islands. And, none of the deer from the Outer Hebrides carry the haplotypes of deer from the mainland or the islands of the Inner Hebrides. Stanton suggests that the deer from the Outer Hebrides and from Orkney may have been brought to Scotland by people from an as yet unknown location. They may have even come from western continental Europe, where red deer have an overall similar genetic profile. To read more about the prehistory of Orkney, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Live Science reports that five lead curse tablets, discovered in a grave in Athens, Greece, in 2003, have been studied by Jessica Lamont of John Hopkins University. The tablets, held at the Piraeus Museum, may have been placed in the young woman’s grave in order to deliver them to the gods of the underworld. Four of the tablets were engraved with well-written curses targeting different tavern keepers in Athens and the names of the chthonic gods. “It’s very rare that you get something so explicit and lengthy and beautifully written, of course in a very terrible way,” Lamont said. The fifth tablet was blank—the words of the curse were probably spoken over it. All of the tablets had been pierced with a nail and folded. Lamont explained that the tablets may have had nothing to do with the woman whose remains were also found in the grave. Her burial “would have been accessible, a good access point for someone to deposit these tablets underground and bury them,” she said. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.
AUKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—A team of researchers from the University of Aukland’s School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Victoria University used computational evolutionary methods to analyze historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures organized into three main groups of high, moderate, and low levels of social stratification. Forty of the 93 cultures in the study practiced some form of ritualistic killing of humans—justified as a supernatural punishment—including burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, cutting to pieces, crushing beneath a canoe, or rolling off the roof of a house followed by decapitation. The study found that cultures with the highest level of social stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice, while more egalitarian societies were less likely to practice human sacrifice. “By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass, and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” Joseph Watts said in a press release. “What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure,” added team member Quentin Atkinson. To read about the tomb of a likely human sacrifice victim in Korea, go to "Mysterious Golden Sacrifice."
MIGDAL, ISRAEL—A bronze incense shovel and a bronze jug were unearthed next to each other in a storehouse near a dock at the site of Magdala, a Jewish settlement located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The site is known for its ritual baths and a first-century synagogue decorated with mosaic floors. Carvings on the Magdala Stone, found in the synagogue’s main hall, depict the Second Temple of Jerusalem and a seven-branched menorah. The shovel also dates to the Second Temple period, and may have been used to rake or gather embers from incense burned in rituals or as a tool for daily tasks. “A similar incense shovel and a jug as those found here in Migdal were discovered by Yigael Yadin in a cache dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising which was revealed in the Cave of the Letters in the Judean Desert. Incense shovels have also been found in the Galilee at Bethsaida, Taiyaba and in Wadi Hammam, and across the country, but all-in-all this is a very rare find,” archaeologist Arfan Najar said in a press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to "Autumn of the Master Builder."
BELFAST, IRELAND—An international team of scientists has shown that a “mass animal deposition” event occurred near the Col de Traversette pass some 2,000 years ago. The scientists, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, say that the deposition was left by the 30,000 men of the Carthaginian army, 37 elephants, and more than 15,000 horses and mules led over the Alps by Hannibal during the Second Punic War with Rome. “The deposition lies within a churned-up mass from a three-foot thick alluvial mire, produced by the constant movement of thousands of animals and humans. Over 70 percent of the microbes in horse manure are from a group known as the Clostridia that are very stable in soil—surviving for thousands of years. We found scientifically significant evidence of these same bugs in a genetic microbial signature precisely dating to the time of the Punic invasion,” Chris Allen of Queen’s University Belfast said in a press release. This route through the Alps was first suggested as Hannibal’s path by biologist Sir Gavin de Beer some 50 years ago. For more on archaeology in the Alps, go to "Ötzi, the Iceman."
BRISTOL, ENGLAND—A team of archaeologists working on the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP) has discovered a bullet that they say was fired by Lawrence of Arabia at the site of the 1917 Hallat Ammar train ambush. “The bullet we found came from a Colt automatic pistol, the type of gun known to be carried by Lawrence and almost certainly not used by any of the ambush’s other participants,” Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol said in a press release. “Lawrence has something of a reputation as a teller of tall tales, but this bullet—and the other archaeological evidence we unearthed during ten years of fieldwork—indicates how reliable his account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom is,” said archaeologist Neil Faulker. For more on Middle Eastern archaeology, go to "The World in Between."