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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, September 09

Ancient Egyptian Artwork Aids Ecologists

SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA—Ancient Egyptian images of the natural world have helped quantitative ecologist Justin Yeakel of the University of California, Santa Cruz, determine that the drying climate and growing human population have probably made Egypt’s ecosystem progressively less stable. Yeakel used records from paleontology, archaeology, and art, including the work of zoologist Dale Osborne, who examined archaeological and paleontological evidence and compiled a database of when species were represented in artwork and how that changed over time. Six thousand years ago, there were 37 species of large-bodied mammals in Egypt. Today there are only eight. “What was once a rich and diverse mammalian community is very different now. As the number of species declined, one of the primary things that was lost was the ecological redundancy of the system. There were multiple species of gazelles and other small herbivores, which are important because so many different predators prey on them. When there are fewer of those small herbivores, the loss of any one species has a much greater effect on the stability of the system and can lead to additional extinctions,” Yeakel explained.

Domestication of Peach Trees Began in China 7,500 Years Ago

TORONTO, CANADA—Farmers began to domesticate peach trees 7,500 years ago in the lower Yangtze River Valley of southern China, according to a new study of ancient peach pits conducted by Yunfei Zheng and X. Chen of the Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, and Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto. Since peach trees mature quickly and produce fruit within two to three years, the results of selective breeding for preferred traits, such as larger, sweeter peaches, would have been seen by early farmers relatively quickly. And peach pits survive in the archaeological record. By comparing peach pits from six sites that spanned a period of 5,000 years, the scientists determined that peaches were indeed growing larger in the Yangtze Valley, becoming the fruit we recognize today over a period of about 3,000 years. “We’re suggesting that very early on, people understood grafting and vegetative reproduction, because it sped up selection. They had to have been doing such work, because seeds have a lot of genetic variability, and you don’t know if a seed will produce the same fruit as the tree that produced it. It’s a gamble. If they simply started grafting, it would guarantee the orchard would have the peaches they wanted,” Crawford told Science Daily

Circular Viking Fort Discovered in Denmark

KØGE, DENMARK—The Telegraph reports that a circular Viking fortress thought to date to the late tenth century has been discovered in Denmark. Nanna Holm of The Danish Castle Centre and Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University took new, precise laser measurements in a field that was a likely candidate. “We suspected that one fortress was ‘missing’ in the island Zealand," Sindbæk explained. "The location at Vallø was quite the right setting in the landscape: in a place where the old main roads met and reached out to Køge river valley, which in the Viking Age was a navigable fjord and one of Zealand’s best natural harbors. From there we worked our way forward step by step.” Then a geophysical survey revealed the “ghost image” of the fortress, and excavation at the north gate uncovered charred oak posts. “The burned wood in the gates will make it possible to determine the age by means of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology,” Holm added. Further investigation will look for buildings inside the fortress. “We are eager to establish if the castle will turn out to be from the time of King Harald Bluetooth, like the previously known fortresses, or perhaps a former king’s work. As a military fortification from the Viking Age, the monument may help to unravel the position of Zealand in relation to the oldest Danish kingdom,” she said. To read about the discovery of another legendary Norse fortification, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Ireland's Viking Fortress."  

Possible Artifacts from the Franklin Expedition Found

OTTAWA, CANADA—Two artifacts thought to have come from the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition have been discovered on Hat Island in Nunavut. The crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were searching for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic when they were lost in 1848. These artifacts are the first clues to the whereabouts of the lost ships to have been found since 1945, when human remains thought to be members of Sir John Franklin’s team were found buried on King William Island. The first artifact is a davit, an iron fitting from the crane of a Royal Navy ship; the second is a wooden plug to cover the hole for a ship’s anchor. “The iron fitting was lying on the shore, adjacent to a rock, a large rock, and the wooden artifact was a bit farther away, a bit farther from the shoreline,” Nunavut archaeologist Douglas Stenton told CBC News Canada. It’s not clear if the artifacts washed ashore from the sunken ships or if they were carried there by crew members, but they do tell researchers that they’ve been looking in the right place. To read about the discovery of HMS Investigator, the doomed vessel dispatched to search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature "Saga of the Northwest Passage."  

Monday, September 08

Copper Age Settlement Discovered in Central Spain

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Researchers from the University of Tübingen have discovered pottery, millstones, tools, and weights for fishing nets left behind by a previously unknown 4,000-year-old settlement in the central Spanish region of Azután, where a megalithic grave chamber is located. “With the new finds at Azután, we can confirm that there was intensive copper working and settlement also in central Spain. Until now, it was thought that such activity was mostly limited to the fertile coastal regions in the south of the Iberian Peninsula,” Felicitas Schmitt told Phys.org. Lead archaeologist Martin Bartelheim will compare geomagnetic soundings with aerial photographs to determine its size. The team will also investigate ancient paths across Spain used by shepherds and traders.  

Iran’s Hansanlu Revisited

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Archaeologist Michael Danti of Boston University has reviewed the records kept by the archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Archaeological Service of Iran who raced to excavate the Iron Age citadel known as Hasanlu between 1956 and 1977. Located in northern Iran, Hansanlu was destroyed around 800 B.C. More than 200 wounded bodies were preserved in the burn layer, including the remains of three soldiers that were found near a crushed gold bowl. Scholars have wondered if these men were defending the citadel or attacking it. “This was warfare that was designed to wipe out people’s identity and terrify people into submission,” Danti told Live Science. He thinks the three battle-ready soldiers may have been attackers from the Urartu kingdom who were climbing up a staircase when the building collapsed. “I doubt these men were rescuing a valued bowl and many other fine objects with little hope of egress as the citadel burned and its remaining occupants were slaughtered or taken captive,” he concluded. Bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletons of the soldiers and the wounded could tell researchers more about the battle, he adds.

Caryatids Uncovered in Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Discovery News reports that two caryatids have been found at a second sealing wall in the tomb under excavation in Amphipolis. “The right arm of the western Caryatid and the left arm of the eastern one are both outstretched, as if to symbolically prevent anyone attempting to enter the grave,” Greece’s Culture Ministry announced. The marble sculptures, which bear traces of red and blue paint, are of thick-haired women wearing sleeved tunics and earrings. The face of one of the figures survives nearly intact, and fragments of parts of the hands and fingers have been found in the soil. A rectangular marble block decorated with rosettes and blue, red, and yellow paint was also discovered at the bottom of the vault. There’s some speculation that the tomb may hold the remains of a Macedonian queen. To read about excavations at a Hellenistic-period city in Turkey, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Zeugma After the Flood."  

Elite Warrior’s Bone Armor Unearthed in Siberia

OMSK, RUSSIA—A well-preserved suit of bone armor estimated to be between 3,900 and 3,500 years old has been unearthed near the Irtysh River in western Siberia, a region where members of the Krotov culture lived. The armor, however, resembles that of the Samus-Seyminskaya culture, which is located in the Altai Mountains. The armor may have been a gift, obtained through trade, or was perhaps the spoils of war. “It is unique first of all because such armor was highly valued. It was more precious than life, because it saved life. Secondly, it was found in a settlement, and this has never happened before,” contract archaeologist Boris Konikov told The Siberian Times. Scientists are carefully extracting the bones from a block of soil in the lab. “Such armor needs constant care. At the moment we can only fantasize—who dug it into the ground and for what purpose? Was it some ritual or sacrifice? We do not know yet,” added Yury Gerasimov of the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. To read about a mysterious Bronze Age burial unearthed in Siberia, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "The Case of the Missing Incisors."   

Friday, September 05

Excavations Continue at Alaska’s Yup’ik Village of Araliq

QUINHAGAK, ALASKA—Recent excavations at the 500-year-old Yup’ik village of Araliq have uncovered a labret, worn by men through piercings in their jawbones or by women over the chin; and a ul’uaq, or woman’s cutting knife, with an ivory handle carved in the shape of Palrayak, a mythical sea monster. Weapons at the site, along with a layer of ash, are evidence of the period known in Yup’ik history as “anguyagpallratni,” or “the bow and arrow wars.” “There is a piece of armor that’s derived from Asian samurai armor where there’s these overlapping plates, except it’s made of antler sewn together," lead archaeologist Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen told Alaska Public Radio. And here’s some more evidence of the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ this is one of the burned arrow points that we found in the ruins of the house. It was fired at somebody in anger. Roof sods and stuff absolutely riddled with those kinds of points. Seventy-five percent of all the arrow points in that house were found in the upper layer.” Knecht and his team are racing to excavate the village before it erodes into the Bering Sea.  

Why Are There So Many People?

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—The stage was set for the population boom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in antiquity, according to Aaron Stutz of Emory University’s Oxford College. His analysis of demographic and archaeological data indicates the interaction between competition and organization reached a tipping point between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. The resulting political-economic balance allowed more people to gain more control over their lives and generate capital. That small-scale success eventually led to more complex development, more resources, and better care of offspring. Then the public health improvements of the Industrial Revolution helped more people to live longer. “The increasingly complex and decentralized economic and political entities that were built up around the world from the beginning of the Common Era to 1500 CE created enough opportunities for individuals, states, and massive powers like England, France, and China to take advantage of the potential for economies of scale,” he told Phys.org. To read about earlier population booms in the Neolithic, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "The Impact of Early Farming on Population Growth."   

Scandinavian Settlement Studied in Poland

SUCHAŃ, POLAND—Archaeologists have returned to northern Poland to examine a site that may have been inhabited by Scandinavian settlers 1,500 years ago. In 2006, single-sided coins known as bracteates, metal pendants, and a ring, all resembling artifacts from Bornholm, Denmark, were discovered on the surface of the site. The bracteates bear an image of a rider on horseback and rune inscriptions on the rims. Recent aerial and geophysical surveys suggest that the settlement was inhabited for hundreds of years. “Findings to date suggest a very significant infiltration of Scandinavian elites from the area of southern Sweden and Bornholm to the areas of Western Pomerania in Late Antiquity, which probably were the point of origin of the later Viking influence in these areas,” Aleksander Bursche of the University of Warsaw explained to Science & Scholarship in Poland. To read about Scandinavian warriors in the early Middle Ages, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "The First Vikings."   

Australia Returns Two Looted Statues to India

NEW DELHI, INDIA—IBN Live reports that Tony Abbot, Prime Minister of Australia, has handed over two statues to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a state visit. The “Nataraja Ardand,” housed at the National Gallery of Australia, and the “Ardhanarishvara,” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, were looted from temples in India and allegedly sold to the museums by Manhattan art dealer Subhash Kapoor. He has been accused of selling hundreds of artifacts with forged proveniences to museums around the world. The investigation continues as Kapoor awaits trial in Chennai.