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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 15

Malnutrition Seen in Baby Teeth From Irish Famine Victims

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—Julia Beaumont of the University of Bradford and a team of scientists have analyzed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the teeth of children and adults who died during the 1845-52 Irish famine. Teeth, which begin to grow before birth, are formed in layers. Each layer of a tooth takes about four months to grow and can be linked to a specific period in a baby’s life. Higher nitrogen levels in bones and teeth are usually associated with good health and a high-protein diet, but the study showed that the babies who had higher nitrogen isotope levels at birth didn’t survive. In fact, older subjects had lower and more stable nitrogen isotope levels throughout early childhood. “At the period we studied, it’s likely that most babies were breastfed, but only some showed the spike in nitrogen isotope levels normally associated with it. Where pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are malnourished however, they can recycle their own tissues in order for the baby to grow and then to produce milk to feed it. We believe this produces higher nitrogen isotope levels and is what we’re seeing in the samples from the nineteenth-century cemeteries. Babies born to and breastfed by malnourished mothers do not receive all the nutrients they need, and this is possibly why these babies didn’t survive,” Beaumont said in a press release. To read about early Norse settlement of the island, see "The Vikings in Ireland."

Skeletons Could Shed Light on Indus Valley Civilization

HARYANA, INDIA—Four 5,000-year-old skeletons from the Harappan civilization have been recovered from an ancient cemetery near Rakhigarhi village in northern India. The well-preserved skeletons were discovered in sandy soil, and the joint team of scientists from Deccan College, the Haryana Archaeology Department, and Seoul National University in South Korea will attempt to collect DNA samples from the bones. “The skeletons of two adult males, a female, and a child have been found. With the help of forensic experts, we will try to reconstruct their DNA,” Nilesh Jadhav, co-director of the project, told The Tribune of India. The results could shed light on the identity of the Harappan people. To read about a related civilization in what is now Iran, see "The World In Between."

Oldest Stone Tools Unearthed in Kenya

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—At the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University announced the discovery of 3.3 million-year-old tools at the site of Lomekwi 3. In 2011, her team was traveling west of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, near the area where a controversial human relative called Kenyanthropus platyops had been discovered, when they saw stone tools on the surface of the ground. Excavation uncovered nearly 20 anvils, cores, and flakes, including a flake that fits into its original core. “The artifacts were clearly knapped and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks,” Harmand said at the meeting, reported in Science. All of the artifacts, which have their own distinct style, were sealed in sediments that were dated using paleomagnetic techniques. Until now, 2.6-million-year-old Oldowan tools from the site of Gona in Ethiopia were the oldest tools on record. The tools from Lomekwi 3 are too old to have been made by modern humans, and may have been created by australopithecines or by Kenyanthropus. To read about stonetools used by our extinct cousins, see "Neanderthal Tool Time." 

Study Suggests Chins Evolved as Faces Shrank

IOWA CITY, IOWA—Scientists have debated for more than a century why modern humans are the only primates to sport chins. Young modern human children have nearly imperceptible chins, similar to Neanderthals, but they grow chins as they mature. Nathan Holton and colleagues at the University of Iowa measured the faces and crania of nearly 40 people, ranging in age from toddler to adult, and found that mechanical forces such as chewing do not produce enough resistance for new bone to be created in the lower jaw. “In short, we do not find any evidence that chins are tied to mechanical function and in some cases we find that chins are worse at resisting mechanical forces as we grow,” Holton said. Team member Robert Franciscus, an anthropologist, suggests that as modern humans formed increasingly cooperative groups, and were less likely to fight over territory and belongings, reduced levels of hormones such as testosterone resulted in noticeable changes in the male craniofacial region—as the face became smaller, the chin became a bony prominence as a matter of geometry. “What we’re arguing is that modern humans had an advantage at some point to have a well-connected social network, they can exchange information, and mates, more readily, there’s innovation, and for that to happen, males have to tolerate each other. There had to be more curiosity and inquisitiveness than aggression, and the evidence of that lies in facial architecture,” Franciscus explained. For more on the evolution of the face, see "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel?"

Tuesday, April 14

Britain’s Oldest Cremated Human Bone Discovered

ESSEX, ENGLAND—It had been thought that the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Britain’s Mesolithic period may have abandoned their dead, but a deposit containing cremated human bone was uncovered by a team from Oxford Archaeology in southeastern England. The bone probably represents at least one adult, whose remains were recovered with a large amount of charcoal, perhaps from a pyre that would have had to have reached a high temperature to achieve the complete combustion of the corpse. “We were expecting this cremation to date to the Bronze Age: we were so surprised when the first radiocarbon date came back as Mesolithic that we did two more to double check!” said Nick Gilmour, excavation leader. Sharp flint blades were found in the same pit, and although they were not finished tools, they could have been used for cutting. Three similar Mesolithic cremations are known in Ireland, and several have been found in continental Europe. For another find dating to this period, see "Beachcombing in the Mesolithic."

Was Richard III’s Scoliosis a Secret?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester thinks that Richard III may have kept his scoliosis hidden from public view, since no mention of it is known to have been made during his lifetime. “It is highly likely that Richard took care to control his public image. The body of the king was part of the propaganda of power, and even when it was revealed in order to be anointed as part of his coronation ceremony it was simultaneously concealed from the congregation,” she said in a press release. Lund suggests that tailoring kept his condition hidden from those outside the royal household until his corpse was stripped in front of witnesses after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Under the Tudor regime, the memory of Richard’s body became more misshapen, and included a withered arm and unequal limbs. “Stage history has reincarnated Richard as monster, villain and clown, but recent events have helped us to re-evaluate these physically defined depictions and strip back the cultural accretions that have surrounded his body,” she said. To read about the initial discovery of the monarch's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

Cut Marks on Neanderthal Bones Analyzed

MADRID, SPAIN—A new study of 57,600-year-old fossils from the Marillac site in France suggests that Neanderthals beat and fractured the bones of the recently deceased. The bones in the study, including leg and arm bones from two adults and a child, were found among the many bones of Neanderthals, animals, and tools at the site. The bones show cut marks made with flint tools while the bones were still fresh. No signs of carnivores’ teeth were found on these specimens, although signs of gnawing by animals have been found on other bones from the Marillac site. “To date we have been able to demonstrate these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe, which are of course much more recent, including groups of contemporary humans, but we have not been able to demonstrate the consumption of human meat by Neanderthals (although this has indeed been done in other much more modern populations),” María Dolores Garralda of Complutense University and the University of Bordeaux said in a Plataforma SINC press release. Why Neanderthals manipulated the bones in this way is uncertain. “There might have been rituals—still in the twenty-first century these continue in certain parts of the world—or for food—gastronomic cannibalism or due to need,” Garralda said. Many of the bones from the Marillac site still need to be analyzed. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Royal Chapel Discovered in Cairo’s Heliopolis Temple

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that carved basalt blocks and part of a statue carved with the cartouche of King Merineptah were found by a joint Egyptian-German team of archaeologists. The chapel belonged to King Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty, the last royal family to rule before Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. “Historical evidence suggests the pharaoh came to power by overthrowing Nepherites II, his predecessor and the last pharaoh of the 29th Dynasty,” archaeologist Sherif el-Sabban told The Cairo Post. The statue of Merineptah depicts the 19th-Dynasty pharaoh presenting an offering to a deity. The chapel was found within Heliopolis Temple, beneath modern Cairo. Ancient Heliopolis was one of the oldest cities in Egypt; most of its buildings were dismantled to build Cairo. Ground water has to be removed from the site for the excavation to continue. To read about animal mummies, which were popular in Egypt during this period, see "Messengers to the Gods."

Monday, April 13

Australian Students Search Possible Contact Site

 CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Students from Australian National University (ANU) are digging on Springbank Island in Lake Burley Griffin for evidence of Canberrra’s first European homestead and an Indigenous meeting place. The island was formed in 1963, when the lake was created and fill was dumped over the site. So far, they have recovered some nineteenth-century artifacts, and ground-penetrating radar suggests a possible foundation that could belong to the homestead. “I have been told by traditional custodians that this was a big meeting place for Indigenous people in the area. This is evident through archaeology with a good number of stone flakes and cores turning up in the sieve,” project leader Duncan Wright said in a press release. The team may even find evidence of contact between the Indigenous people and the Europeans. “Strangely in the [Australian Capital Territory] and surrounding regions it’s really hard to find any signs of that type of contact but we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. For more on Australian archaeology, see "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Roman Grave in England Yields Egyptian Glass

NORTH HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—A burial dating to A.D. 200 has been found in a field in southern England by a metal detectorist, who alerted the authorities after recovering three Roman jugs and a bronze dish. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, North Hertfordshire District Council’s Archaeology and Outreach Officer, announced that glass bottles, an iron lamp, a wall mounting bracket, two layers of hobnails from a pair of shoes, and a box with bronze corner bindings were also found. The largest of the bottles was hexagonal in shape, and contained cremated bone and a worn bronze coin dating from A.D. 174 or 175. Next to it, the team uncovered a rare octagonal-shaped bottle. Two mosaic glass dishes, probably made in Alexandria, Egypt, were found on top of a decayed wooden box that had held two clear glass cups and a pair of blue glass handles. “After 1,800 years, finds like these still impress us with their workmanship. Working together with the metal detectorist, NHDC’s archaeologist and the Finds Liaison Officer were able to uncover the past and find out and understand so much more about the lives of people in Roman North Herts,” Fitzpatrick-Matthews said in a press release. To read more about this period, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."

Excavations Reveal Ottawa’s “Barrack Hill”

OTTAWA, CANADA—Recent excavations near some of the main buildings on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill have uncovered items and buildings left behind by the British Royal Engineers who lived there while building the Rideau Canal in 1827, under the direction of Lt. Col. John By. The area was called Bytown after him, and was designated the capital by Queen Victoria in 1858. The foundations of an early nineteenth-century powder magazine remain, in addition to a garbage pit associated with the officers’ quarters. An opium bottle, two Catholic religious medals, a pipe engraved with a beaver and another with a coureur de bois, a lice comb, a toothbrush, pottery and china imported from England, a Worcestershire sauce bottle, and a mustard jar were recovered, along with bottles from wine, beer and champagne, tumblers, glasses, and animal bones. “When you think of early Bytown, it’s often portrayed as a swamp, as a back country area, but it’s interesting to see the officers still enjoyed a gentlemanly life that was expected of them,” project archaeologist Nadine Kopp of the Paterson Group told The Star Phoenix. The officers' quarters became government offices in 1867, and burned down in 1874. To read more about historical archaeology, see "America's Chinatowns."

Mass Grave Detected at Nazi Concentration Camp

LOWER SAXONY, GERMANY—A mass grave has been detected at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp located in northern Germany. Dutch researchers, including archaeologist Ivar Schute, used testimonies from ex-inmates of the camp and found an area of disturbed ground in a field at the end of the camp’s former main road. Measurements and initial tests suggest that a mass grave rests at the site. “We have consulted the Jewish community of Lower Saxony and according to religious laws no digging is allowed. That’s why there’s a decision not to start a dig. In any case, the whole camp has been declared a cemetery,” Jens-Christian Wagneer, director of the Bergen-Belsen memorial, told International Business Times. Some 70,000 people, including Jewish diarist Anne Frank, her sister Margot, and Dutch Resistance activist Jan Verschure, died at the camp between 1941 and April 15, 1945, when it was liberated. British troops burned the camp to prevent the further spread of disease. To read more about excavations at sites dating to this period, see "The Archaeology of World War II."