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New World Epidemic May Have Been Caused by Salmonella

February 18, 2017

JENA, GERMANY—Nature reports that evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and his team think that a rare strain of Salmonella could be responsible for an epidemic that killed as much as 80 percent of Mexico’s population between 1545 and 1550, in the years following the Spanish conquest. The scientists sequenced bacterial DNA obtained from the teeth of 29 people who had been buried in southern Mexico, and compared the samples to a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes. The DNA recovered from several of the individuals matched that of Salmonella. Further testing suggests the strain is a rare one that today causes enteric fever and can be fatal without treatment. Evidence for the presence of the same strain of bacteria has been found in a woman who was buried in Trondheim, Norway, around the year A.D. 1200. The study suggests that the bacteria may have been carried by Spanish explorers to the New World. To read in-depth about the study of ancient DNA, go to “Worlds Within Us.”

Categories: Blog

Nero’s Domus Aurea Receives Virtual-Reality Treatment

February 17, 2017

ROME, ITALY—CBS News reports that visitors to the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s “Golden House,” can experience how it might have looked 2,000 years ago through virtual reality headsets. Raffaele Carlani, an architect and graphic designer, and his team at the company KatatexiLux, studied the works of Renaissance painters who viewed the palace’s frescoes in their efforts to reproduce its faded splendor. “Nothing is invented,” Carlani said, “every part of the reconstruction has a scientific base.” To read in-depth about the Domus Aurea, go to “Golden House of an Emperor.”

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Welcome Back, Woolly Mammoth?

February 17, 2017

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—The woolly mammoth went extinct about 4,000 years ago, probably due to climate change and human hunting. The Guardian reports that scientists think they may be able to create a hybrid mammoth-elephant embryo in two years through the use of the Crispr gene-editing tool. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits,” explained George Church of Harvard University. Those woolly mammoth traits include small ears, subcutaneous fat, shaggy hair, and cold-adapted blood. So far, woolly mammoth DNA, obtained from the remains of animals found frozen in Siberian ice, has only been inserted into Asian elephant cells. But the team is also experimenting with an artificial womb in which a “mammophant” embryo could develop, rather than try to implant it into an endangered female Asian elephant. Church suggests that mammoth traits could help strengthen Asian elephants, and that bringing the animals back could help preserve the frozen tundra. “They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” he said. To read about the discovery of mammoth remains in Michigan, go to “Leftover Mammoth.”

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Charcoal Samples Could Reflect Tree Use at Angkor

February 17, 2017

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—The Cambodia Daily reports that archaeologists Mitch Hendrickson of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Phon Kaseka of the Royal Academy of Cambodia have been collecting charcoal samples as they excavate smelters that produced iron for Angkor some 1,000 years ago. They estimate that it took three to four tons of charcoal to smelt one ton of iron ore. The charcoal samples will help the scientists to determine what kind of trees were preferred for fueling the furnaces. “There is no record of a specific management system for forest usage, but we presume they would have had one,” Hendrickson said. Different trees would have probably been used to fire ceramics or cast bronze. Hendrickson and Kaseka hope that other researchers will add information on tree use at Angkor to their new database. For more, go to “Angkor Urban Sprawl.”

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Unusual Burial Unearthed in Transylvania

February 16, 2017

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—City News reports that students from Australian National University unearthed a total of 49 graves dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in a cemetery belonging to Transylvania’s Székely people, who migrated to Transylvania from Hungary in the eleventh or twelfth century. Most of the graves contained one or two small coins with the human remains, but one grave in particular yielded five large coins, which had been placed in the man’s hands, as well as brass buttons, ceramic buttons, and a leather liner. “He was very healthy, he had no indicators of disease,” said student Coco James. The skeleton, which did show some signs of trauma, was also rolled on its side and tilting downwards in the grave. The excavators think that the pallbearers may have lost their grip on the coffin during the burial, so that it rolled into the grave and landed upside down. The team members hope the excavation will provide additional evidence of the history of the Székely people, who rely on oral histories. For more, go to “Thracian Treasure Chest.”

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Roman-Era Gateway Found in Jewish Town in Northern Israel

February 16, 2017

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The Times of Israel reports that a Roman-era gateway has been identified in northern Israel at the site of Beit She’arim, Hebrew for “House of Gates.” The small town was a center of Jewish culture, and known as the headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish judicial and scholarly council, and the site where the Mishna, or Jewish oral law, was compiled in the second century A.D. The gate was built next to a circular tower with limestone blocks. Traces of postholes for doors and locks have been found in the soil. “As far as we were aware, a settlement of this type wasn’t supposed to be ringed by a wall,” said archaeologist Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa, “and therefore it was almost obvious that the name Beit She’arim wasn’t connected to the word ‘gate.’” It had been thought that the word ‘gate’ could refer to the entrances to rock-cut tombs on a nearby hillside. The fortifications may have been built to protect prominent citizens, or the town may have been part of a larger Roman fortress. To read about another recent discovery in Israel, go to “Sun and Moon.”

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3,000-Year-Old Bronze Weapons Unearthed in Scotland

February 16, 2017

CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND—The Scotsman reports that a well-preserved hoard of Bronze Age weapons has been discovered in a field in northeastern Scotland by a team from Guard Archaeology. Among the recovered objects were a bronze spearhead embellished with gold, and a sword, pin, and scabbard fittings, all made of bronze. Leather and wood parts of the scabbard also survived, making it possibly “the best preserved Late Bronze Age sword scabbard ever found in Britain,” according to Alan Hunter Blair, who led the team. The spearhead had been wrapped in fur skin, and a textile was also found around the pin and scabbard. To read more about archaeology in Scotland, go to “Lost and Found (Again).”

Categories: Blog

Medieval Kiln Unearthed in Nottingham

February 15, 2017

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—The Nottingham Post reports that pottery, glass, roof tiles, and a possible brick kiln have been unearthed at a construction site located outside what had been the limits of the medieval town of Nottingham. The town was known for its green-glazed pottery, but this is the first time that evidence suggesting that it was produced beyond the town ditch has been found. “Defense was a factor, but the main purpose of a town ditch was demarcation,” said project manager Paul Flintoft. “Every town would have needed one. It’s almost as if there may have been a suburb on the outside of the ditch.” To read about another recent discovery in England, go to “Behind the Curtain.”

Categories: Blog

Roasted Turnip Found 16th-Century Settlement in Siberia

February 15, 2017

TARA, SIBERIA—According to a report in The Siberian Times, a team of researchers from Tomsk State University is excavating a house at an early Russian settlement in southwestern Siberia that was founded in 1594. The military town was situated on the border of the steppe, in order to protect areas to the west that were occupied by Russians. The house under investigation burned down, so that a woman’s knitted stockings, a turnip in a large clay pot, and wooden structures and fortifications were preserved. “The fire was quite big,” explained archaeologist Maria Chernaya. She said that the turnip had been stored near the house’s stove, and when the fire began, it baked inside the storage pot. Analysis of the root vegetable indicates that it had been kept in the pot for several months, suggesting that if it had been harvested in autumn, the house burned down in the winter or spring. “Among other interesting finds are pieces of glassware, which was made by Venetian technology somewhere in Germany or the modern Czech Republic, and then exported to Russia,” she explained. For more, go to “Siberian William Tell.”

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Ancient Pottery Recorded Geomagnetic Field Fluctuations

February 15, 2017

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Live Science reports that Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues measured fluctuations in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field using a collection of pottery jugs dating to between the eighth and second centuries B.C. The jugs were marked some 2,500 years ago with administrative stamps by the bureaucracy of the kingdom of Judah, and then fired. The heat locked information regarding the Earth’s geomagnetic field into the iron-containing minerals in the clay, while the stamps provide precise dates. The study suggests that in the Levant, the strength of the magnetic field “fluctuates quite rapidly,” but because the precise locations of where the pottery was fired are not known, the scientists can't determine the direction of the geomagnetic field based on it. The research could help lead to a system of dating heated materials based upon their magnetic properties. For more on archaeology of the kingdom of Judah, go to “Cults of the Bronze Age.”

Categories: Blog

Lake Sediments Record Climate Change at Cahokia

February 14, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA—National Public Radio reports that climatologist Broxton Bird of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and colleagues analyzed layers of calcite crystals interspersed with layers of mud on the bottom of Indiana’s Martin Lake in order to learn about historic rainfall levels at Cahokia. The study suggests that beginning in the 900s, the Central Mississippi Valley received more rain than usual. And carbon isotopes found in skeletons at Mississippian cities indicate that people ate a lot of corn. “That comes at right around 950, and that’s around the time the population at Cahokia explodes,” Bird said. Then around A.D. 1200, at a time of increased worldwide volcanic activity, the weather pattern in North America shifted. “We switch to profound drought at A.D. 1350,” Bird explained. According to the climate record in the Martin Lake sediments, the drought lasted for 500 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that palisades were built at Cahokia after A.D. 1250, villages were burned, and skeletal remains show signs of decapitations and other injuries. Bird and his colleagues think climate change and food scarcity prompted the residents to migrate to the south and east, where conditions were less extreme. For more, go to “Breaking Cahokia’s Glass Ceiling.”

Categories: Blog

Comala-Period Figurines Discovered in Mexico

February 14, 2017

COLIMA, MEXICO—Live Science reports that a 1,700-year-old tomb was discovered in western Mexico during the renovation of a church. The entrance to the rare, intact tomb had been sealed with stones, grinding tools, and human bones. Inside, researchers discovered 12 skulls and additional bones in piles. Physical anthropologist Rosa María Flores Ramírez of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said that some of the skulls showed signs of damage, tooth fractures, and wear. Excavation of the tomb revealed additional burial levels. The second level contained two polished figurines sculpted from fine paste and decorated with ochre that had been placed facedown, along with two skulls. One of the figurines is thought to be a male shaman wearing an elaborate headdress and holding an ax. It measures about 15 inches tall. The other figurine is thought to be female, measures about 12.5 inches tall, and has a triangular head with a sharp nose. She has her hands crossed, holds a pot, and wears a banded headdress. Two other pots were also found in the burial. For more, go to “The Rabbit Farms of Teotihuacán.”

Categories: Blog

Sarcophagus Fragment Returned to Greece

February 14, 2017

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Courthouse News reports that a fragment of the marble façade of an ancient Greek sarcophagus, thought to have been stolen from Thessaloniki in 1989, was handed over to Greece’s consul general Konstantinos Koutras in a ceremony at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The sculpture, which dates to A.D. 200 and depicts a battle between Greek and Trojan warriors, was recently recovered from a Manhattan art gallery. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., warned art galleries in his statement at the ceremony to “be on guard” for looted objects. “The process of establishing an item’s provenance may not be easy,” Vance said, “and it’s often not straightforward, but the alternative is the implicit endorsement of an unacceptable practice through willful ignorance.” The sarcophagus fragment will be displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to “Regime Change in Athens.”

Categories: Blog

Round Temples Found in Northern Sudan

February 11, 2017

KERMA, SUDAN—AFP reports that Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet has discovered massive fortifications and three temples at Dogi Gel, or “Red Hill,” a site located several hundred yards from the ancient city of Kerma in northern Sudan. The temples are round and oval in shape, and date from 1,500 to 2,000 B.C., while buildings at Kerma are square or rectangular in shape. “This architecture is unknown,” Bonnet said of the temples. “There is no example in central Africa or in the Nile Valley of this architecture.” Bonnet thinks the fortifications suggest that the king of Kerma and others from central Africa defended the site against the ancient Egyptians. For more, go to “Miniature Pyramids of Sudan.”

Categories: Blog

Ancient Tomb Surveyed Near Japan’s Fukushima Power Plant

February 11, 2017

FUKUSHIMA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that researchers from Tohoku University Museum, along with government officials from the town of Futaba, employed 3-D technology to create a map of the seventh-century Kiyotosakuoketsu tomb. The tomb is located in an area of high radiation levels less than two miles away from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where a nuclear disaster occurred in 2011. “We want to collect the accurate data as this is a valuable cultural asset,” said archaeologist Atsushi Fujisawa. The tomb contains a mural that consists of a spiral pattern, people riding horses, and other animals and objects painted in red. The researchers found that white crystallized minerals have formed on part of the mural, and a tree root has grown through the ceiling of the tomb. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Categories: Blog

Animal Burials Unearthed in England

February 11, 2017

SHROPSHIRE, ENGLAND—Shropshire Live reports that the remains of three people and several animals have been found at the site of a church that could date to the Anglo-Saxon period. A flint was found in the ribs of a calf buried side-by-side with a pig. The remains of a large dog, which had died giving birth, was buried near six chickens. The team also uncovered a pig that may have been interred in a leather-covered wooden coffin. The bones of a pregnant goat, another dog, and what may be a large goose have also been found. “The bones don’t show any signs of butchery, and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground,” said archaeologist Janey Green of Baskerville Archaeological Services. “To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no-no,” Green explained. The bones may be linked to a nearby prehistoric burial mound, however, and once they have been dated, they will be reburied at the site. For more on the Anglo-Saxons, go to “Letter from England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North.”

Categories: Blog

Students Experiment With Ancient Brewing Techniques

February 11, 2017

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—National Public Radio reports that archaeologist Li Liu of Stanford University and her students brewed an ancient beer recipe derived from the residues detected in pottery vessels unearthed in northeast China. The ingredients included millet, barley, a type of grass known as Job’s tears, yam, and lily root. The students started the fermentation process by either sprouting the grains or chewing them and spitting them out. The mixtures were then heated and allowed to rest for a week. The brewing experiments produced a fermented porridge that was low in alcohol but rich in nutrients. “I think the early beer is not just for drink[ing],” Liu said. “It’s a food.” Liu added that she had been surprised to find barley in the residues of 5,000-year-old beers because the earliest known evidence of barley in China dates to about 4,000 years ago. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Categories: Blog

Prehistoric Stone Ax Returned to Egypt

February 10, 2017

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM—Ahram Online reports that scientists at Louvain University handed over a 35,000-year-old ax to the Egyptian Embassy in Brussels. The stone ax was discovered by an excavation team from Louvain University at the Nazlet Khater archaeological site in Upper Egypt. A skeleton from the site that had been in Belgium since 1980 was returned in 2015. Shaaban Abdel Gawad of Egypt’s Antiquities Repatriation Department has proposed that the skeleton and the ax be put on display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat. For more, go to “A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet.”

Categories: Blog

Update From Downtown St. Augustine

February 10, 2017

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA—First Coast News reports that excavations in downtown St. Augustine have uncovered additional human remains at a site thought to be the home of a sixteenth-century church. The remains were found beneath the floor of a building at King and Charlotte Streets that was damaged by Hurricane Matthew. According to city archaeologist Carl Halbirt, the bones could represent some of the city’s first European residents. The burials are in the Christian style, with the skulls to the east and the arms crossed over the body, and are thought to date to between 1572 and 1586. “We can actually start to look at small pieces of bone and tooth,” said biological anthropologist John Krigbaum of the University of Florida. “You can start to get access to diet. Are they eating a lot of fish, corn, wheat?” DNA may also be collected from the bone samples. “This would provide clues as to what is going on in St. Augustine in the sixteenth century,” Halbirt said. For more, go to “Letter from Florida: People of the White Earth.”

Categories: Blog

Pebbles May Have Linked Paleolithic Mourners to the Deceased

February 10, 2017

MONTRÉAL, CANADA—The International Business Times reports that a team of scientists from the Université de Montréal, Arizona State University, and the University of Genoa found marine pebbles in Italy’s Arene Candide Cave that hunter-gatherers may have used to apply ochre paste to the dead between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago. The remains of about 20 people have been found in the cave, which is located in a cliff overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The pebbles, found in pieces in the cave, are thought to have been collected on the shoreline, and then broken in half when the ritual painting was completed. The researchers attempted to reassemble the pebble fragments recovered during the excavation, but no matching halves were found, suggesting that half of a pebble was left with the dead, while the other half was carried away as a talisman or souvenir. Claudine Gravel-Miguel of Arizona State University said that the new evidence could push the earliest known case of the ritual breaking of objects back by 5,000 years. For more, go to “Paleo-Dentistry.”

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