AVEYRON VALLEY, FRANCE—A number of semicircular walls built from stalagmites by Neanderthals deep in a cave in southwestern France have been dated to around 176,000 years old, making them among the world’s oldest constructions, according to a report in Nature News. The six structures, first discovered in Bruniquel Cave in the early 1990s, are made of around 400 large stalagmite pieces broken from the cave floor and arranged in semi-circles as large as 22 feet wide. They lie around a fifth of a mile from the cave’s entrance and getting to them requires navigating a narrow approach. Researchers believe that at one time the pieces were stacked up to create walls. “It’s obvious when you see it, that it’s not natural,” said Dominique Genty of the Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace. Analysis of calcite that has accumulated on the stalagmites since they were broken established that the structures date to between 174,400 and 178,600 years ago. No remains of early humans, stone tools, or signs of occupation have been found, but researchers have concluded that Neanderthals made the structures as no other hominins are known to have been present in the area at the time. For more, go to “Decoding Neanderthal Genetics.”
ABRI FARAVEL, FRANCE—In a small rock shelter in the French Alps some 7,000 feet above sea level, archaeologists have used laser scans to create virtual models of the highest rock art depictions of animals ever discovered in Europe, reports the Yorkshire Post. The shelter was in regular use beginning in the Mesolithic period, about 10,000 years ago, and was at least occasionally occupied up to the medieval period. The team, led by University of York archaeologist Kevin Walsh, has found Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools at the site, along with Iron Age pottery, a Roman-era brooch, and medieval metal objects. Nearby the cave they discovered Bronze Age stone dwellings and animal enclosures. While direct dating of the paintings themselves is impossible, they seem to be analogous to art made during the Neolithic at lower altitudes, and appear to depict a deer hunting scene. In addition to scanning the paintings, the team scanned the shelter itself and the surrounding landscape. “This is the only example of virtual models, including a scan of the art, done at high altitude in the Alps and probably the highest virtual model of an archaeological landscape in Europe,” said Walsh. To read more about scanning archaeological sites, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—The remains of a ship were recently discovered underground at a construction site in Boston’s Seaport District. Over the past few days, Boston’s city archaeologist, Joe Bagley, and colleagues have scrambled to learn as much about it as possible before construction resumes. Based on the ship’s nails, they have determined that it dates to the mid-to-late nineteenth century. “It’s not terribly old,” Bagley told Boston.com, “but it’s part of the maritime history of Boston either way.” The area where the approximately 50-foot-long ship was found consisted of mudflats that were filled in 1880 to create more buildable land. It is unclear whether the ship was deliberately sunk or left in place after crashing or running aground. There is evidence of a fire on board, though it could have occurred while the ship sank or later, to reduce the size of the wreckage. Inside the ship, the archaeologists have found dozens of barrels of lime, which may have been transported from Maine for use in concrete or to make paper. To read in-depth about a ship found underground in Manhattan, go to “The Hidden History of New York's Harbor.”
ASWAN, EGYPT—The mummy of an important woman named Sachiny from ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom has been discovered, according to a report in Egypt Independent. A team headed by archaeologist Alejandro Jimenez found the mummy in a two-layer cedar coffin during an excavation at the Tombs of the Nobles, west of Aswan in southern Egypt. The coffins had hieroglyphic inscriptions that helped identify the mummy. In addition, the inner coffin’s wood was in good condition, allowing it to be dated. Sachiny, who lived during the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1755 B.C.), was part of a royal family. The Tomb of the Nobles also includes tombs of the governors of Aswan from ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms. To read about another recent discovery, go to “Egypt’s Immigrant Elite.”
TROGIR, CROATIA—Workers expanding a private parking lot in the coastal Croatian town of Trogir inadvertently unearthed a number of Roman-era graves, reports Total Croatia News. Upon learning of the discovery, the parking lot's owner halted work and contacted the staff of the local Trogir Museum. Archaeologists then found four stone urns and up to 18 tombstones left intact in the necropolis, which was located near a former Roman road that led from the city, then known as Tragurium, to the surrounding countryside. Dating to the first century A.D., the burials probably belonged to members of the upper class, as suggested by the discovery of grave goods such as a glass perfume bottle and a bronze needle. The team expects to find more burials as they continue to work at the site. To read in-depth about Roman archaeology, go to “Rome’s Imperial Port.”
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—More than 80,000 artifacts at the site of the former visitors center at Independence National Historic Park have been unearthed in excavations over the past three years, according to a report in Philly Voice. The excavations, which were carried out by archaeologists from Commonwealth Heritage Group, have turned up unusually thorough evidence of the development of Philadelphia over three centuries. "Cities change; cities are so dynamic," said archaeologist Rebecca Yamin. "On this site we have captured that change.” Their findings include evidence of eighteenth-century taverns, nineteenth-century print shops, and a twentieth-century button factory. One standout find is an eighteenth-century punchbowl that depicts the Tryphena, a brigantine ship that carried a message to Great Britain in an attempt to foment opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed some of the taxes that led to the American Revolution. Other artifacts found at the site include wig curlers, marbles, lead weights, and window glass with people’s names etched into it. For more, go to “Letter from Philadelphia: City Garden.”
CHESAPEAKE BAY, MARYLAND—A team led by Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Torben Rick has found that prehistoric Native Americans in Chesapeake Bay used sustainable methods to harvest oysters. The group studied a series of prehistoric shell mounds in the area, expecting to find that the size of oysters would decrease over time as they were harvested more intensively. But while they found size did fluctuate through the centuries, there was no evidence for an overall decline in shell size from about 3,500 to 400 years ago. “Archaeologists all over the world have documented size declines where indigenous peoples were intensively harvesting shellfish,” Rick told the Bay Journal. “We didn’t find that at all.” Rick hopes that study of the prehistoric oyster fishery might help inform efforts to rebuild the modern oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, which is just one percent of what it was a hundred years ago. For more about how prehistoric North Americans managed coastal resources, go to “The Edible Landscape.”
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."