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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, January 21

2,000-Year-Old Roman Decoration Found in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports that a tiny bronze sculpture discovered by a metal detectorist on the Danish island of Falster has been identified as an image of Silenus, the companion and tutor of the wine god Dionysus, by experts at the National Museum of Denmark. The finely detailed figure depicts an elderly, bearded, balding man with thick lips and a plump nose that was originally a fitting from the headrest of a Roman dining couch, or a lectus tricliniaris. Such a bust of Silenus would have been paired with a figure of a mule’s head, since Silenus was often shown inebriated and carried by others or hanging over the back of a mule. The fitting may have come to Denmark on a Roman lectus tricliniaris, but it probably arrived as a loose object through trade, as a war trophy, or a gift. To read about a depiction of the god Silenus in one of the most famous works of ancient Roman art, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Pre-Columbian Bones in Peru Show Signs of Surgery

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Peru This Week reports that two skeletons from the pre-Columbian site of Kuelap show signs of bone surgery. The skeletons, both of moderately healthy males that date between 800 and 1535 A.D., had holes drilled in the bones of their legs. According to J. Maria Toyne of the University of Florida, the holes may have been intended to drain fluid and relieve pressure caused by injury or infection, although it is unclear if the patients died during the surgery, or if they may have been recently deceased and their bodies used for training purposes. Toyne adds that the people of the Chachapoya region had developed advanced medical practices during this period. To read more about ancient surgical advances, go to "Artful Surgery." 

River Clean-Up Could Retrieve Civil War Weapons

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—A planned environmental clean-up of the Congaree River in South Carolina could recover Confederate munitions that Union troops, under the command of General William T. Sherman, captured in 1865. Sherman’s army burned a third of the city and captured 1.2 million ball cartridges; 100,000 percussion caps; 6,000 unfinished arms; 4,000 bayonet scabbards; and 3,100 sabers. The soldiers reportedly dumped what they couldn’t carry in the river. Since then, fishermen and swimmers have recovered some of the weapons. “I’m sure there will be some interesting items. I don’t anticipate huge volumes,” state underwater archaeologist James Spirek told The State. The artifacts are expected to be found under some 40,000 tons of coal tar discharged into the river from a power plant 60 years ago. To read about the excavations of a Civil War prison, see "Life on the Inside."

Tuesday, January 20

Bacteria’s Genome Reflects Human History

PARIS, FRANCE—Nature News reports that a new genetic analysis of the Beijing lineage of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, suggests that it emerged some 6,600 years ago in northeastern China. This coincides with the archaeological evidence of the beginning of rice farming in China’s upper Yangtze River Valley. As in other parts of the world, it is thought the M. tuberculosis bacteria took hold in human populations when people settled down to farm. The research team, led by evolutionary geneticist Thierry Wirth at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, thinks that the bacteria probably spread along the Silk Road, which connected China to the Middle East, and eventually reached the Pacific Islands and Central Asia in the nineteenth century with waves of Chinese immigration. Numbers of the bacteria spiked during the Industrial Revolution and urbanization after World War I, when people lived in increasingly close quarters. The numbers of bacteria fell as antibiotics became widely available, but then rebounded with the rise of HIV/AIDS and the collapse of the Soviet health system. To read about the spread of tuberculosis to the New World, see "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."

Evidence of Carnivore Consumption Found at Atapuerca

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—Human tooth marks and cut marks have been found on the bones of small carnivores in El Mirador Cave at Atapuerca. The cave had been used to shelter flocks of sheep and cattle, but humans also sporadically consumed domestic dog, wild cat, fox, and badger, between 7,200 and 3,100 years ago. “In El Mirador Cave, the dogs were disarticulated, defleshed, and boiled. In this site this has been observed both in the Neolithic as in the Bronze Age levels. It occurs occasionally in various episodes, but has temporal continuity,” said Patricia Martin of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution. She notes that the wild animals may have been accidentally captured and consumed, and that the dogs may have been eaten at a time of food shortage, or even may have been butchered for their skins. To read more about discoveries at Atapuerca, see "First European."

High-Tech Imaging Detects Letters in Carbonized Scroll

NAPLES, ITALY—Vito Mocella of the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems used x-ray phase-contrast tomography to look inside carbonized scrolls from the library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. The library and its estimated 700 scrolls were burned and buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, and since its discovery in 1752, scientists and classicists have been attempting to unroll the papyri and read them. Mocella’s team was able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact. “It is a revolution for papyrologists,” he said of the study, published in Nature Communications. Daniel Delattre of the Institute for the Research and History of Texts in Paris examined the handwriting of the few letters and words that the team was able to recover. He thinks the scroll was written by a scribe known to have been working in the first century B.C., and that the text is likely a copy of a work by the Epicurian philosopher and poet Philodemus. Additional software could help speed up the process of reading the collection of scrolls, and trigger the continued excavation of the Villa of the Papyri. “One of the arguments against proceeding with the excavation of the villa is that we would be unable to read any scrolls that might be discovered, and until then it would be better to leave them underground. Now we are on the edge of possessing that technology, and, since an excavation will take some time to arrange, we might as well get started,” classicist Robert Fowler of the University of Bristol commented to Nature News. To read more about ancient papyri, see "Papyrus Fragment Bears Early Christian Prayers."

Amphipolis Tomb Held Five Individuals

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—The bones of at least five people had been buried in the tomb at Amphipolis, according to an announcement made by the Greek Ministry of Culture and reported in The Telegraph. Archaeologists identified the bones of a woman over the age of 60, a newborn baby, two men aged between 35 and 45, and the cremated remains of an adult of indeterminate age. The bones of one of the men bore signs of injury from a sword or a dagger. It has been suggested that the opulent tomb, which dates to between 325 B.C. and 300 B.C., may have belonged to Alexander the Great’s mother, who was murdered, along with his widow, son, and half-brother. The bones will be tested to try to determine if the woman and the two men were related. “Part of the analysis will look into a possible blood relationship… but the lack of teeth and cranial parts that are used in ancient DNA analysis may not allow for a successful identification,” the Ministry of Culture revealed. For more on the tomb, see "Top 10 Discoveries of 2014: Amphipolis."

Friday, January 16

Exeter Cathedral Could Uncover Its Roman Baths

EXETER, ENGLAND—Exeter Cathedral has submitted a bid to England’s Heritage Lottery Fund to unearth a first-century Roman bath discovered under the cathedral green in 1971. Archaeologist Paul Bidwell told BBC News that the Exeter Baths were “one of the first two monumental masonry buildings built in Britain.” The site includes a large caldarium, or hot room; a tepidarium, or warm room; a furnace house; an exercise yard; and multiple service rooms. “The baths were of a continental design which shows a close connection between Exeter and the civilized culture of the wider Roman Empire. It is of international interest,” added Martin Pitts of the University of Exeter. The Anglo-Saxon minster was then built on the site, followed by Exeter Cathedral in 1050. The ruins would be showcased in an underground interpretation center, along with other historic items from the cathedral. For more on the culture of Roman Britain, see "Artifact: Eagle Sculpture."

Seventh-Century Moat Uncovered in Japan

ASUKA, JAPAN—Excavation work at a school at the Koyamada ruins in Nara Prefecture has uncovered the remnants of what may have been a moat at the first burial site of Emperor Jomei (593-641), according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. The moat had been lined with quartz diorite boulders on one of its sloping sides, flatter stones on its bottom surface, and special chlorite schist flagstones topped with flagstones known as “Haibara,” made of rhyolite, stacked in a staircase pattern on the other slope. The researchers estimate that the moat’s burial mound was square shaped, with each side measuring between 50 and 90 yards long. Jomei’s final gravesite, the Dannozuka burial mound in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, was constructed in the same design with the same materials. To read about a Roman artifact discovered in Japan see "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

Ireland’s Dairies Date Back 6,000 Years

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Ninety percent of the fats found in Neolithic cooking pots from Ireland came from dairy products, according to a new study conducted at the University of Bristol. “We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots. It looks to have been a very important food source,” said Jessica Smyth of the School of Chemistry. The remaining ten percent of the residues came from beef or mutton fat, or a mixture of milk and meat. “People can obviously cook meat in other ways than boiling it in pots, and there is plenty of evidence for cereal processing at this time, but the Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic,” she said. Early Irish farmers were likely to have had one or two imported animals to support their individual households. Those animals may have been cared for as part of a larger community herd. To read about another method of studying prehistoric dairy consumption, see "Dental Calculus Offers Evidence of Milk-Drinking."