JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority announced in a press release that significant remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhof of Vilna have been mapped with ground-penetrating radar. The international research team was led by John Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Zenonas Baubonis of the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, and Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. The Great Synagogue, built in the seventeenth century in the Renaissance-Baroque style, was the oldest monument of Jewish culture in Lithuania. The structure was eventually surrounded by 12 synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and a ritual bath complex. Vilna’s Jewish community was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, and the remains of the buildings were later demolished by the Soviets. A school was built on the site, but the new survey revealed sections of the Great Synagogue and traces of what may have been the miqva’ot, or ritual bath complex. Plans are being made to excavate the site next year. To read more about how archaeology has shed light on Napoleon's experience in the city of Vilnius, go to "Digging Napoleon's Dead."
HAIFA, ISRAEL—The latest excavations at the 4,000-year-old site of Tel Kabri in northern Israel have uncovered three more rooms with plastered floors containing storage jars, and there are more rooms in the palace complex to be excavated. The palace at Tel Kabri, which resembles Crete’s palace of Knossos, was inhabited continuously for more than 250 years and features banquet rooms and halls. Last season, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa and Eric H. Cline of The George Washington University discovered a room full of storage jars that had contained an aromatic red wine. “The goal of this season was to further understand the Canaanite palatial economy, by expanding the excavation beyond the area where the jars were found last season. We were hoping to find additional store rooms, thinking about the palace of Mari and the palaces in Crete from the same period—but to find ones that are actually filled with jars was unexpected. This kind of a find is a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about Canaanite economy and rulership,” Yassur-Landau told Haaretz.
ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—Carbon dating reveals that a Pictish fort on a sea stack known as Dunnicaer dates to the third or fourth century, making it the oldest-known Pictish fort. Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen needed the assistance of mountaineers to reach the site for excavations conducted last April. Their efforts were rewarded with evidence of ramparts of timber and stone, floors, and a hearth. “The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site,” archaeologist Gordon Noble said in a press release. “It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high-status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the third century,” he added. In fact, erosion may have eventually prompted the Picts to move along the coast to what is now Dunnottar Castle, first built in the early medieval period. To read more about the Picts and their writing systems, go to "It's All Pictish to Me."
TAUTAVEL, FRANCE—The Guardian reports that a large adult tooth was discovered at Arago Cave in southwestern France. “A large adult tooth—we can’t say if it was from a male or female—was found during excavations of soil we know to be between 550,000 and 580,000 years old, because we used different dating methods. This is a major discovery because we have very few human fossils from this period in Europe,” paleoanthropologist Amélie Vialet told Agence France-Presse. The tooth is about 100,000 years older than Tautavel man, whose remains were unearthed at the site it 1971, and could represent the oldest human remains ever found in France. To read about the oldest art in France, go to "A Chauvet Primer."
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery and Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley and his team have identified the remains of four men buried in the chancel of the 1608 church at Jamestown as the Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Capt. William West with archaeological evidence, skeletal analyses, chemical testing, 3-D technology, and genealogical research. “Two of the men, Archer and Hunt, were with the first expedition, which established Jamestown in May 1607. And the other two, Wainman and West, arrived with Lord De La Warr and helped save the colony three years later,” James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, said in a press release. Hunt, an Anglican minister, is thought to have been buried simply, in the grave without a coffin. Archer died during the “starving time” at Jamestown and is thought to have been buried in a coffin with a captain’s leading staff. This burial also contained a small silver box that may have served as a Roman Catholic reliquary. Lead in the bones of the third burial suggests the deceased was affluent and had eaten from pewter and glazed wares. This man, thought to be Wainman, had been buried in an anthropomorphic wooden coffin. The last of the chancel burials is thought to belong to Capt. William West, who was killed in 1610 during a skirmish with the Powhatan. He was also buried in an anthropomorphic coffin. A micro-CT scan revealed the highly decayed remnants of a military sash, thought to have been made of silk and adorned with silver fringe and spangles. “The presence of the artifacts and the location of the graves in the church’s most sacred space, the chancel, both indicate the high status of the four men and their importance to the early history of the Jamestown venture,” said William Kelso, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery. To read about a discovery at Jamestown that made our Top 10 list, go to "1608 Church-Jamestown, Virginia."
ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—More than 20 medieval skeletons were discovered in a shallow grave on the grounds of Robert Gordon College by a work crew installing cables. The site is thought to have been a burial from the Blackfriars Abbey, which was founded in 1230 and destroyed by Protestant reformers in 1560. “At the time the friars from both Blackfriars Abbey and Greyfriars were kicked out of the city and the abbeys left in ruins,” local historian Diane Morgan told The Scotsman. The skeletons are thought to date to the thirteenth century. “This find is very interesting and in the thirteenth century people could pay money to be buried on sanctified grounds,” she added.
MIAMI, FLORIDA—Abrupt climate change may have affected some of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent, according to a study conducted by an international team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The team made a high-resolution image of a sediment core taken from Neor Lake in northwest Iran that recorded conditions and changes in climate over the past 13,000 years, and measured the physical properties of its layers. “The high-resolution nature of this record afforded us the rare opportunity to examine the influence of abrupt climate change on early human societies. We see that transitions in several major civilizations across this region, as evidenced by the available historical and archaeological records, coincided with episodes of high atmospheric dust; higher fluxes of dust are attributed to drier conditions across the region over the last 5,000 years,” Arash Sharifi of the University of Miami said in a press release. To read about a 5,000-year-old civilization in what is now Iran, go to "The World in Between."
YORK, ENGLAND—Steve Ashby of the University of York thinks that Viking raiders of the eighth century were motivated by more than the acquisition of wealth. “The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age,” he said in a press release. Ashby argues that Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Celtic metal objects were not melted down because they served as reminders of successful raids and became symbols of status and power. And those who participated in raiding parties not only accumulated wealth, they built their reputations. “The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself,” Ashby explained. To read about a discovery presenting other novel ideas about the Vikings, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."
GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA—Marcello A. Canuto of Tulane University and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala announced at a press conference the discovery of a fifth-century stele at the Maya site of El Achiotal, located to the east of La Corona. “This stela portrays an early king during one of the more poorly understood periods of ancient Maya history,” Canuto said in a press release. Graduate student Luke Auld-Thomas found fragments of the stela in a shrine that had been built for it during a time of political upheaval in the central Maya area. The archaeologists, who are part of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala, also uncovered two hieroglyphic panels in a corner room at La Corona’s palace. These texts, which tell of rituals of kingly accession, had been missed by looters. “The fact that the stela and these panels were preserved by the ancient Maya themselves long after they were first carved adds a new wrinkle to our interpretation of how much the ancient Maya valued and strove to preserve their own history,” Canuto said. To read about the excavation of another Maya site in Guatemala, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."
MONTREAL, CANADA—Construction crews discovered traces of Saint-Henri-des-Tanneries, an eighteenth-century village, beneath Montreal’s busy Turcot Interchange. More than half of the village’s residents were employed in the leather and tanning trades. “Montreal was almost like the shoe and leather capital of the world,” Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal told CTV News. Among the stone foundations of the family-owned shops and homes, archaeologists have unearthed wood tanks for washing and treating skins, cattle bones and horns, and a double-hilted knife used to make wood chips for the tanning process.
TEMPE, ARIZONA—Isaac Ullah of Arizona State University, Ian Kuijt of the University of Notre Dame, and Jacob Freemann of Utah State University combined existing research on the origins of agriculture with dynamical systems theory (DST) to try to understand what propelled humans to shift from hunting and gathering to farming. This shift has been difficult for scientists to study because it happened at different times in different places with different crops and animals. “DST tells us that there ought to be some combinations of subsistence behaviors and environmental characteristics that are generally stable and some that aren’t,” Ullah said in a press release. The analysis showed that resource density, mobility, and population size are important variables that can be influenced by social and environmental conditions. “It is this specific insight that may help to explain why the transition to food production happened in some times and places but not in others, why it happened so differently in all these places and at different times and rates,” he said.
ENFIELD, ENGLAND—A triangular pane of glass, still set in its lead cames, was found among demolition debris in a guarderobe chute at the Forty Hall Estate by members of the Enfield Archaeology Society. The estate had formerly been the site of Elsyng Palace, used by Henry VIII for hunting. “We were tracing the outline of the palace, once home to the future Edward VI and ‘Bloody’ Mary as children, and in the process found this chute full of demolition material from 1657 when the palace was demolished,” Martin Dearne, director of excavations, told Culture 24. The team uncovered a dump of window glass and lead cames, the channeling that holds the glass in place, and the one pane that was still intact. To read more about historical archaeology in England, go to "Treason, Plot, and Witchcraft."
MONMOUTH, WALES—A timber that once supported a crannog, or fortified farmhouse on stilts, was found in the remains of a post-glacial lake two years ago during the construction of a new housing development. The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasow has radiocarbon dated the timber to 2917 B.C., making this crannog 2,000 years older than the only other known crannog in England and Wales. “The timber, bearing cut marks left by stone or flint axes, formed the end of an oak post which had been carefully levelled to create a flat surface which would probably have rested on a post pad set in the bottom of the lake,” archaeologist Steve Clarke, founder of the Monmouth Archaeological Society, told the South Wales Argus. To read about another crannog in the British Isles, go to "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—The 4,000-year-old skeleton of an adolescent has been uncovered by a team from the University of Reading at Wilsford Henge in the Vale of Pewsey, an area located between Stonehenge and Avebury. The child had been buried in the fetal position, and had been wearing an amber necklace. “The skeleton is a wonderful discovery which will help tell us what life was like for those who lived under the shadow of Stonehenge at a time of frenzied activity. Scientific analysis will provide information on the gender of the child, diet, pathologies and date of burial. It may also shed light on where this young individual had lived,” Jim Leary of the University of Reading told BT News. The excavation has also recovered flint blades, decorated pottery, shale and copper bracelets, and a Roman brooch. To read more, go to "Under Stonehenge."
XUCHANG, CHINA—The 100,000-year-old remains of at least nine individuals have so far been unearthed at the Lingjing Historical Site in central China by a team from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. Two of the limb bones, which may have belonged to the same young individual, carry bite marks. “We are not quite sure whether those [bite marks] were from predators or other humans,” researcher Li Zhanyang told China Daily. Sixteen pieces of a skull known as Xuchang Man that still bore traces of a fossilized membrane were recovered from the site in 2008. “Different from the ancient human skull fossils that were discovered eight years ago, the first discovery of limb bone fossils provides more opportunities to decode the process of human evolution,” Li said. For more on archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL—Evidence of small-scale agriculture has been found at a 23,000-year-old camp site on the shore of Israel’s Sea of Galilee. Scientists from Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University, Tel Aviv University, and Harvard University found that the site had more domestic wheat and barley than was expected, in addition to plants, or proto-weeds, that are usually found in fields planted with crops. Microscopic examination of the cutting edges of blades from the site found silicon that may have been transferred during the cutting and harvesting of the cereal plants. The site, once underwater, has also yielded six dwellings, a grave, traces of more than 140 different plant species, remains of animal foods, beads, and worked flint. “The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions,” Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University said in a press release. The team also found evidence that the cereals were processed on a grinding slab set on the floor of one of the brush huts. Flat stones found outside another shelter may have been used to bake dough. To read about another recent prehistoric discovery in the region, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel."
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Fragments of two parchment leaves on which text of the Qur’an had been written have been radiocarbon dated to between A.D. 568 and 645. The manuscript, held at the University of Birmingham, is thought to have been written shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who is thought to have lived between A.D. 570 and 632, making it one of the oldest surviving examples of the book. The text contains parts of the Suras 18 to 20, and is written is an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. These leaves had been bound with similar leaves that date to the late seventh century. “The radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an folios has yielded a startling result and reveals one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collections. They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” Nadir Dinshaw of the University of Birmingham said in a press release.
TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Two fragments of a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory have been found in Hohle Fels Cave. The fragments resemble a breast and part of the stomach of the 40,000-year-old figurine known as the Venus from Hohle Fels, which was discovered in 2008. This carving may have been slightly larger, however, than the approximately two-inch-tall Venus. “The new discovery indicates that the female depictions are not as rare in the Aurignacian as previously thought, and that concerns about human sexuality, reproduction and fertility in general have a very long and rich history dating to the Ice Age,” Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen said in a press release. To read about another masterpiece of Paleolithic art, go to "New Life for Lion Man."
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new large-scale genome study is adding to the debate over how the peopling of the Americas occurred. An international team of scientists sampled several present-day Native American and Siberian populations, in addition to ancient DNA samples from across the Americas. “Our study presents the most comprehensive picture of the genetic prehistory of the Americas to date. We show that all Native Americans, including the major sub-groups of Amerindians and Athabascans, descend from the same migration wave into the Americas. This was distinct from later waves that gave rise to the Paleo-Eskimo and Inuit populations in the New World Arctic region,” Maanasa Raghavan of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen said in a press release. The results also indicate that the initial migration took place no earlier than 23,000 years ago, when Native Americans split from East Asian and Siberian populations. Ancestral Native Americans may then have been isolated in Beringia for some 8,000 years, since the oldest archaeological evidence in the Americas is about 15,000 years old. The study also found that some 13,000 years ago, this population split into northern and southern branches. Gene flow between some Native American groups and present-day East Asians and Australo-Melanesians was also detected. “It is a surprising finding and it implies that New World populations were not completely isolated from the Old World after their initial migration. We cannot say exactly how and when this gene flow happened, but one possibility is that it came through the Aleutian Islanders living off the coast of Alaska,” added Eske Willerslev, who headed the study. To read more about the peopling of the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."
CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damaty announced the discovery of two carvings by archaeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology. The reliefs were uncovered in the temple of Serapis in the ancient port city of Berenice, located on the Red Sea coast. One of the reliefs has been dated to the Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 B.C.) because it bears the cartouche of the 12th Dynasty king Amenemhat IV. The other has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period (1674-1549 B.C.), although it is not as well preserved as the first. The reliefs are older than the port city, which was built by Ptolemy II in the third century A.D. To read about a recently unearthed temple to the god Amun, go to "The Cult of Amun."