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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, November 12

How Does the Environment Shape the Development of Culture?

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Kathelinjne Koops of the University of Cambridge has written an opinion piece in Biology Letters that challenges the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. She and her colleagues have reviewed studies on tool use among chimpanzees, orangutans, and bearded capuchins, and have found that their tool use did not increase during times of scarcity. Rather, primates use tools when there are calorie-rich, hard-to-reach foods, such as nuts and honey, available in the environment. Understanding the development of tool use in our primate cousins could provide insights into the development of human culture and technology, Koops explained. “The local environment may exert a powerful influence on culture and may, in fact, be critical for understanding the occurrence and distribution of material culture,” she told Science Daily.

“Project Recover” Finds Two World War II Aircraft

NEWARK, DELAWARE—Last March, a team of researchers and volunteers found two planes that had crashed into the Pacific Ocean near the Republic of Palau during the fierce fighting of World War II. Eric Terrill of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Mark Moline of the University of Delaware were studying currents and making maps of the flow of water around the islands when they met Patrick Scannon, whose nonprofit group BentProp uses historical records and first-hand accounts to search for the remains of American service members, and which had already identified a downed Corsair fighter off Palau. Their combined efforts led to the discovery of an Avenger bomber that went down with two men and a F6F Hellcat. All of the information collected by Project Recover has been turned over to the U.S. Navy. “It was an exciting time, but also a solemn time because you know there are potentially servicemen still in the plane,” Moline said. To read about similar projects, see "The Archaeology of World War II."

Human Remains Recovered From Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Greece’s Culture Ministry has announced the discovery of skeletal remains in the elaborate late fourth-century B.C. tomb at Amphipolis. “The tomb in all probability belongs to a male and a general,” chief archaeologist Katerina Peristeri told BBC News. Tests on the bones may reveal the age and sex of the occupant, whose body had been placed in a wooden coffin held together with bronze and iron nails. The coffin was then buried some five feet below the floor of the tomb’s third chamber. Bone and glass fragments in the grave were probably decorations on the casket. Archaeologists found some of the remains scattered in the chamber, confirming that the tomb had been plundered. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's Tomb, see "Searching for History's Greatest Rulers."

Tuesday, November 11

Pigments Could Help Scientists Date Cave Art

VALENCIA, SPAIN—A team of scientists from the University of Valencia and France’s National Center for Scientific Research has identified a new set of figures painted in black on the walls of the Remígia Cave in the Valltorta-Gassulla area of Spain, and analyzed how the pigments in the artworks were prepared. The pigments were tested on site with EDXRF—energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence, and microsamples were tested in the lab with electron microscopy. Most of the rock art in the Iberian Mediterranean Basin, known as Levantine art, is made with a red pigment from iron oxide. Red was also used to paint over some of the black images. White was sometimes used to complement the red. The black pigments in these new paintings were made from carbonized plant materials that could help the team date the artwork. “Up to now, these pigments were associated with the use of mineral components such as manganese oxides, but this study has made it possible, for the first time, to identify the use of carbonized plant material to produce the black pigments used in the Levantine paintings at Valltorta-Gassulla,” Clodoaldo Roldán of the University of Valencia told Science Daily. To read about another ancient pigment study, see "From Egyptian Blue to Infrared."

Vivid Murals Depict Daily Life in Ancient China

DATONG CITY, CHINA—Live Science reports that a circular tomb decorated with murals has been excavated in northern China. The 1,000-year-old tomb had been looted, and the name of its occupant has not survived, but a three-foot-tall statue of him was left behind. The figure, which may have been substituted for the body in the burial, is sitting cross-legged on a platform and smiling, wearing a long black robe. The tomb’s ceiling was decorated with bright red stars connected with straight lines to form constellations. Images on the walls depict attendants carrying fruit and drinks. A reclining deer, a crane, bamboo trees, and a turtle are also shown. Other animals in the paintings may have been pets of the deceased, described in the new journal Chinese Cultural Relics by a team from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology as “a black and white cat with a red ribbon on its neck and a silk-strip ball in its mouth,” and “a black and white dog with a red ribbon on its neck and a curved tail.” To read about other archaeological depictions of dogs, see "More Than Man's Best Friend."

U.S. Museum Sends Artifacts Home to Peru

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The United States Air Force transported human remains, ceramic vessels, necklaces, and a textile to the Peruvian Air Force base in Lima. All of the artifacts and remains, which had been housed at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, were identified for repatriation under the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. “It’s been an honor to care for these collections. We are glad to help send these collections home to Peru,” Peter Lape, associate director of research and curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum, told The Daily. The staff at the museum found the three sets of Peruvian remains when they inventoried their collections to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The museum and the Peruvian government then coordinated their efforts to identify the additional artifacts. 

Ice Age Infant Burials Discovered in Central Alaska

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—The remains of two infants buried more than 11,000 years ago have been found underneath a hearth where the cremated remains of a three-year old child were discovered earlier. The hearth is part of a residential structure at Upward Sun River, one of the oldest archaeological settlements in Alaska. Perhaps a set of twins, one of the infants died in utero, while the other lived for a few weeks. The radiocarbon dates for all three sets of remains are identical, suggesting that there was perhaps only a single season between the death of the infants and the death of the small child. The hearth also contained traces of salmon and ground squirrels, offering clues to the diet eaten by the inhabitants, and indicating that the burials took place during the summer months. Shaped stone points and antler shafts decorated with incised lines were included in the burials as grave offerings. The weapons are the earliest known examples of hafted biface technology in North America. “Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks told Science Daily. DNA analysis could reveal how the children were related to each other and who the people were who lived at Upward Sun River. To read more about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning." 

Monday, November 10

Ancient Basket Found on Scottish Island

NORTH UIST, SCOTLAND—Recent storms have exposed a woven reed basket containing worked quartz and animal bones on an island in the Outer Hebrides. “It’s rare to find well-preserved organic material. It indicates that this basket must have been kept under water from the day that it was placed, or lost, there. Perhaps it was in a freshwater loch until it was covered over by encroaching beach sediment,” Kate MacDonald of Uist Archaeology told the Island News and Advertiser. Specialists will remove the basket, which might date to the Bronze Age and was discovered by a member of a local archaeology group, in a block of sediment so that it can be excavated under laboratory conditions. The quartz and bones will also be examined. To read about another recent discovery in Scotland, see "Viking Hoard Unearthed." 

Tunnel Excavation Reveals Stone-Age Footprints

FALSTER, DENMARK—Footprints thought to have been left by fishermen 5,000 years ago have been found by archaeologists working ahead of the planned construction of the Femern Belt Tunnel, which will connect Denmark and Germany. “We normally find historical clues in the form of human waste, but here we have found an entirely different clue and a first in Danish archaeology: a physical print left behind by a human,” archaeologist Terje Stafseth of the Museum Lolland-Falster told The Copenhagen Post. The prints are thought to have been made by two individuals who waded out into a silted seabed to repair and eventually move their weirs from the flooding. “We can follow the footprints, sense the importance of these weirs and know they would have been an important source of nutrition for the coastal community,” Stafseth added. To read about a similar site, see "England's Oldest Footprints."

Pond Discovered at Roman Settlement in England

BARNHAM, ENGLAND—Excavations in southern England have uncovered traces of a first-century Roman settlement. “All the archaeological features appear today as filled with pale grey silt, and it is usually easy to see that these must be silted-up ditches, pits and post-holes, but a large round grey splodge on the site was puzzling everyone,” John Mills, senior archaeologist for the West Sussex County Council, told BBC News. The large, round depression is thought to be a pond that was surrounded by trash pits filled with household debris. Pottery at the site had been crafted in the nearby Arun Valley. Tiles used by the Romans to equip stone buildings with under-floor heating suggest that a larger building may still be found at the site. To read more about life in Roman Britain, see "Artifact: Vindolanda Tablet."

Carving of Unidentified God Unearthed in Turkey

MÜNSTER, GERMANY—While excavating a medieval Christian monastery in southeastern Turkey, excavation director Engelbert Winter and archaeologist Michael Blömer of the University of Münster uncovered a Roman relief that had been repurposed as a buttress. The monastery had been built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, a prominent god of the second century A.D. “The image is remarkably well preserved. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs of the Romans and into the continued existence of ancient Near Eastern traditions. However, extensive research is necessary before we will be able to accurately identify the deity,” Blömer told Science Daily. The image, which may date to the early first millennium B.C., had been carved on a basalt stele and shows the deity growing from a chalice of leaves. A long horn and a tree, grasped by the god, grow from the sides of the cone. To read more about the team's discoveries in Turkey, see "How to Pray to a Storm God."