DURHAM, ENGLAND—The Los Angeles Times reports that ancient records of lunar and solar eclipses have helped scientists to determine that the time it takes for the Earth to spin once around its axis has increased by an average of 1.8 milliseconds per century. Recently retired astronomer Richard Stephenson began the project 40 years ago at the University of Essex, and continued the work at Durham University, where he memorized 1,500 Chinese characters so that he could decipher astronomical records kept between A.D. 434 and 1280. He also analyzed data from Babylonian cuneiform tablets written between 720 and 10 B.C., the work of Arab astronomers working between A.D. 800 and 1000, and medieval European records. “People recording these things never had the slightest notion that what they were doing would lead to people in our generation actually studying changes in the Earth spin,” Stephenson said. “We are very much at the mercy of these ancient chroniclers and astronomers.” Stephenson would like to add the observations of the Maya and the Incas to the data set, and to find additional data dating from A.D. 200 to 600. To read in-depth about cuneiform tablets, go to “The World's Oldest Writing.”
LONDON, ENGLAND—The face of a man who lived 9,500 years ago in Jericho, near the Jordan River in the West Bank, has been reconstructed based on a scan of his skull, according to a report from Seeker. The “Jericho Skull” is one of seven discovered by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953 and is now housed at the British Museum. It consists of a face modeled in plaster over a man’s skull. “He was certainly a mature individual when he died, but we cannot say exactly why his skull, or for that matter the other skulls that were buried alongside him, were chosen to be plastered,” says Alexandra Fletcher of the British Museum. “It may have been something these individuals achieved in life that led to them being remembered after death.” The 3-D reconstruction of the man’s face was produced using a micro-CT scan of the skull, which detected the structure of his face bones. The scan revealed that the man had broken and decayed teeth and a healed broken nose, and that his head had been bound from a young age to alter the shape of his skull, which suggests that he had elite status. For more, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”
VLOCHOS, GREECE— Archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg and the University of Bournemouth are exploring the remains of a long-overlooked ancient city in northern Greece. The ruins, which are scattered atop a hill, were known to scholars, but were regarded as belonging to a small settlement. However, after just one season, the team has found extensive walls that enclose some 100 acres. “I think it is incredibly big,” project leader Robin Rönnlund told The Local Sweden. “It's something thought to be a small village that turns out to be a city, with a structured network of streets and a square.” The team has found coins dating back to 500 B.C., as well as other artifacts that indicate the city flourished from the fourth to third centuries B.C., before it was abandoned when Romans conquered the region. To read more about recent archaeology in Greece, go to “Murder on the Mountain?”
LOLLAND, DENMARK—A local man and his two sons have found a range of gold items on the Danish island of Lolland, according to a report in The Local Denmark. Included in the find was a bracteate, or thin gold medallion dating to the Germanic Iron Age. Archaeologists at the Museum Lolland-Falster believe the amulet includes an image of the Nordic god Odin. “Even though it is a previously known type, it is a rare and exciting discovery,” said museum spokeswoman Marie Brinch. “Throughout history there have only been three found on Lolland, the latest in 1906, and in all of Northern Europe there are only around 1,000 of them.” Also found with the amulet were another gold pendant, a gold ring, and a number of pieces of silver. To read about another discovery in Denmark, go to “Bronze Age Bride.”
PERTH, AUSTRALIA—The New Daily reports that archaeologists from the Western Australia Maritime Museum have returned to the wreck James Mathew, a British merchant ship that sunk in 1841. The team's goal is to create a detailed, 3-D model of the ship in order to closely monitor how the vessel's condition changes in the future. “The idea is we will come back every few years and take another set of photographs and be able to overlay the models,” says former museum director Graeme Henderson. “You’ll see growth in seaweed and sponges on the site and you’ll also be able to see the deterioration if that’s happened.” First discovered in 1973, the ship had sailed from London laden with farming equipment and other supplies for the newly established Swan River colony. Because much of the ship was buried in sand, its cargo was unusually well preserved. Research into the ship's history also revealed the vessel had a dark past. Earlier it was known as the Don Franciso, and served as a Brazilian slaving ship that was seized by the British in 1837 with more than 400 slaves aboard. To read in-depth about maritime archaeology, go to “History’s 10 Greatest Wrecks.”
CAMP VERDE, ARIZONA—Western Digs reports that archaeologist Matt Guebard of the U.S. National Park Service thinks that violent conflict may have led the Southern Sinagua people to abandon two dwellings built some 900 years ago in a rock shelter in central Arizona’s Verde Valley. In the 1930s, archaeologists found evidence that there had been fires in both structures, and it was later suggested that the buildings were ceremonially burned by the Sinagua. Guebard and his team re-examined the site, and consulted tribal groups whose ancestors lived in the region. New dates for charred wall plaster coincide with the styles of pottery found in one of the buildings, suggesting that it was in use up until the time of the fire, sometime between 1375 and 1395. A re-examination of the remains of four people found in a single grave revealed injuries and burns. And several oral histories describe a sudden, violent attack, perhaps by the ancestral Apache and Yavapai people, who may have been living in central Arizona much earlier than had been previously thought. “In this case, the oral histories and the archaeological data fit together really well,” Guebard said. To read more about archaeology in the Southwest, go to "Searching for the Comanche Empire."
LUXOR, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that 3,000-year-old statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet have been found at the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III in Luxor. The statues, including three busts and a headless torso, were unearthed in the temple’s hypostyle hall. Mahmoud Afifi, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, explained that in Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet, the daughter of the sun god Re, defended her father against his enemies. Her statues in the temple are thought to have been intended to offer protection from evil and disease to the king. “They are of great artistic quality,” says Hourig Sourouzian, director of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project. When the excavation is completed, the statues will be returned to their original settings. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, go to "The Cult of Amun."
WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA—Science Magazine reports that traces of human remains and a deadly virus have been detected in pottery unearthed at Heuneburg, an Iron Age hillfort in Germany. A team led by Conner Wiktorowicz of Purdue University washed the pottery fragments with detergent to remove any residues on them, and then isolated and analyzed protein fragments in the residues. The results were compared to a national protein database, revealing that the pots contained human blood and organs. This is the first time that archaeologists have encountered human remains in pottery vessels in this region during the period between 600 and 450 B.C. Additional proteins in the residues suggest that the individual had Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, which is transmitted by ticks. Scholars now want to know if there was an epidemic of the disease in Iron Age Germany. The investigation also shows that protein analysis could help scientists identify other ancient viruses, which are usually studied through their nucleic acids. “Recovering nucleic acids from ancient viruses is extremely difficult and plagued by contamination,” says forensic anthropologist Angelique Corthals of the City University of New York. “Virus proteins are more readily accessible and less prone to degradation.” To read more about this period, go to "Hillforts of the Iron Age."
NORTH SAANICH, CANADA—Nature reports that toxicologist Jennie Christensen and her colleagues used a synchrotron particle accelerator to measure the levels of copper, zinc, and lead throughout a toenail and a thumbnail recovered from the remains of John Hartnell, a sailor in the Franklin Expedition who was buried on Beechey Island. By tracking the changes in the levels of metals in the nails, the team was able to determine the levels of metals in Hartnell’s body in the weeks leading up to his death. The study suggests that he suffered from a severe zinc deficiency that may have suppressed his immune system and made him more vulnerable to disease. Lead poisoning and the delirium it can cause have been blamed for the failure of the Franklin Expedition, and the team did find high levels of lead in Hartnell’s body during his last few weeks of his life. But Christensen says that as Hartnell’s body broke down, lead stored in his bones was probably released into his bloodstream. Analytical chemist Ron Martin of Western University points out that all of the crew members would have been exposed to lead throughout their lives. His analysis of crew members’ bone fragments did not find a spike in lead levels. “The lead theory is pretty much dismantled by this point,” Martin says. To read more, go to "Franklin's Last Voyage."
SHANGHAI, CHINA—Xinhua reports that thousands of pieces of porcelain have been unearthed at the site of Qinglong Town in suburban Shanghai. Historic documents indicate that the town was an important stop on the maritime Silk Road. The porcelain was made in south China and dates to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) and the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279). Similar porcelain goods have been found in Korea and Japan, according to archaeologist Jie Chen of the Shanghai Museum. “This shows the porcelain was transported to Qinglong from south China kilns and then exported to the Korean Peninsula and Japan by sea,” Chen said. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”
HAMILTON, CANADA—The smallpox virus has been detected in the seventeenth-century mummy of a child found in a crypt at a church in Vilnius, Lithuania, according to a report in Seeker. “We believe this is the oldest smallpox genome sequenced to date,” said Ana Duggan of the McMaster University Ancient DNA Center. Duggan and her colleagues compared the seventeenth-century strain of the disease-causing virus with samples dating from 1946 to 1977. They found that all of the strains had a recent common ancestor that originated sometime between 1588 and 1645. Based upon scarring on ancient Egyptian mummies, it had been thought that the disease was thousands of years old. Evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center, says that the ancient cases may actually have been chicken pox or measles, and will require further investigation. The team also says the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century may have triggered the virus to split into two strains. “This raises important questions about how a pathogen diversifies in the face of vaccination,” Duggan said. To read about an excavation relating to Edward Jenner, pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, go to "Letter from England: The Scientist's Garden."
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND—Researchers from the University of Glasgow and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) have reconstructed the face of Robert the Bruce, who ruled Scotland from 1306 to 1329, according to a BBC News report. His remains are thought to have been unearthed at Dunfermline Abbey around 1818, and although the bones were sealed in pitch and reburied, a cast of the skull was made and has been kept in a London museum. Nothing is known about Bruce’s appearance, but documents record that he suffered from an illness. The position of the skull bones in the cast allowed researchers to infer Robert's facial muscle formation and determine the shape and structure of his face, said craniofacial expert Caroline Wilkinson of LJMU. The team also found signs of leprosy on the upper jaw and nose of the skull cast, so they created versions of the king’s face with leprosy and without the disease, explaining that its effects may not have been very noticeable, since it was not documented. The researchers also gave the strong warrior king light brown hair and eyes in the reconstruction, based upon statistical evaluation. For more on Robert the Bruce, go to “Bannockburn Booty.”
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Researchers from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen have analyzed plant remains collected from archaeological sites in southwest Asia, according to a report in the International Business Times. They found that between 11,600 and 10,700 years ago, legumes, fruits, and nuts were plentiful in the diets of people living in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, while cereals such as wheat and barley were the preferred foods in Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Israel. The study suggests that cereals were domesticated between 10,700 and 10,200 years ago in the southern Levant, where they were popular, but not domesticated in the eastern Fertile Crescent for another 400 to 1,000 years. “It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions,” said archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui. This suggests that examining the domestication of lentils, beans, and peas could help researchers understand the growth of agriculture in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. For more on archaeology in the area, go to “Mystery Buildings at Petra.”
RUPERT’S VALLEY, SAINT HELENA—Nature reports that Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues are studying the transatlantic slave trade by sequencing the genomes of people buried in slave cemeteries. One of the sites in the study is the African Graveyard on the island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. Between 1840 and the late 1860s, tens of thousands of people on board slave ships captured by the British Navy were dropped off on the island. Many of the survivors were relocated, but as many as 10,000 died on the island and were buried in the African Graveyard. Schroeder and his team collected DNA from the teeth of 63 individuals whose remains were recovered in a construction project, and then sequenced partial genomes of 20 of the samples. The results, when compared to DNA samples from modern African ethnic groups, suggest that the island’s refugees came from diverse populations in West and Central Africa. As the genomes of more living people in sub-Saharan Africa are sequenced, Schroeder and his team should find better matches. They are also analyzing the geochemistry of the teeth for information about where people spent their childhoods, and the modifications made to the teeth for clues to possible cultural ties. For more, go to “Tracing Slave Origins.”
SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—A sacrificial site that may have been used by the emperors of the Qin (221–206 B.C.) and Western Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 24) dynasties has been excavated in Fengxiang, some nine miles southeast of the ancient capital, according to a report in China Daily. The excavation team recovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including jade objects, tiles, bronze ornaments, chariots, and the remains of horses at the site, which has been known as Yongshan Blood Pool since antiquity because of the livestock that was thought to have been slaughtered and buried there. “The excavation focused on a rammed-earth platform and sacrificial pits, two site ruins with different characters, and it is the first time we have found such imperial sacrificial sites, which are identical with ancient records,” said researcher Tian Yaqi of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”
SHANGHAI, CHINA—According to a report in Science Magazine, geneticist Zhen Wang of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and his colleagues examined DNA samples taken from China’s highland and lowland gray wolves, Tibetan mastiffs, Chinese lowland village dogs, and a golden jackal. The study suggests that lowland dogs traveled to the Tibetan Plateau with people about 24,000 years ago, where they interbred with the Tibetan gray wolves and acquired a gene variant that regulates the production of hemoglobin in the blood. This gene is key to surviving with the limited supply of oxygen at high altitude. People are thought to have acquired a variant of this same gene from the Denisovans. “It’s surprising and provocative that this [interbreeding] strategy has been employed by both species,” commented molecular biologist Frank Lee of the University of Pennsylvania. To read in-depth about dogs and archaeology, go to “More Than Man's Best Friend.”