Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, August 24

Drought Reveals Wreckage of Soviet Plane in Poland

KAMION, POLAND—Human remains have been removed from a World War II-era Soviet plane that crashed into a lake in central Poland after it was hit with German artillery. “For now we have managed to find the instrument panel, the engine, a wheel and a well-preserved radio,” Zdzislaw Leszczynski, director of the Museum of the River Vistula, told Radio Poland. The wreckage was revealed in Bzura Lake as the water level dropped during the recent heatwave and lack of rain. “The plane was so battered that it’s impossible to determine which model it is for the time being,” Leszczynski added. To read more, go to "Archaeology of WWII."

Bones of Cholera Victims Unearthed in Dublin

DUBLIN, IRELAND—The disarticulated remains of victims of the Great Cholera Epidemic of 1832 have been unearthed in northern Dublin during the construction of a new line on the Luas light rail system. According to The Irish Times, most of those who died in Dublin during the outbreak were buried in a cemetery near the seventeenth-century Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, but there was not enough space there to meet the need, and an overflow burial ground was opened. That cemetery, however, was moved in the 1870s when the Midlands Great Western Railway at Broadstone was extended. “I think that is what we are looking at,” said principal archaeologist Maria Fitzgerald. “It’s just all the bones placed in what we think is a trench going down the center of the site. There seems to be quite a few burials; we have come across quite a number of skulls,” she said. Fitzgerald and her team are working with the designers of the new train line to try to preserve the bones where they are now. To read more about archaeology in Ireland, go to "Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh."

“The Rhynie Man” May Have Guarded a Pictish Fort

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen and his team have returned to the site where an image of a man with a large, pointed nose wearing a headdress and carrying an ax on his shoulder was discovered on a six-foot-tall stone in 1978, near the village of Rhynie. They think the area may have been a high-status or royal Pictish site, and that the so-called Rhynie Man’s ax may have been a type that was used for ceremonies and animal sacrifice. “We found many long-distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site,” Noble said in a press release. The fifth or sixth-century Rhynie Man stone may have stood at the entrance to a fort. “We want to try and identify exactly where he was standing as this will give us a better idea how he fits into the high status site and what his role may have been,” Noble explained. To read more about Picts, go to "Game of Stones."

Yup’ik Wooden Mask Discovered in Alaska

QUINHAGAK, ALASKA—This season’s excavation at Nunalleq, or the well-preserved Yup’ik “old village” on the coast of the Bering Sea, has uncovered a mask depicting a half-human, half-walrus face. “It’s got amazingly lifelike contours with the cheek bones, and the nose, and the forehead and so on,” Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen told Alaska Public Media. The team also found a bentwood bowl among other household items, jewelry, and weapons in the 500-year-old sod house, which was burned and abandoned around 1640. “On the bottom of the bentwood bowl is an ownership mark left by the person who carved that and these ownership marks were inherited between families. We have about six or seven ownership marks we see consistently throughout this site, which we believe was a very large sod house divided up into compartments which were domestic spaces for women and children,” he added. The excavation is being conducted with the support of local Yup’ik people to retrieve the artifacts and record the site before it erodes into the sea. To read in-depth about the excavations at Nunalleq, go to "Cultural Revival."

Friday, August 21

Unusual Mars Figurine Found in Bulgaria

SOFIA, BULGARIA—Archaeologists excavating in the Early Byzantine city of Missionis have discovered a figurine depicting Mars that they believe was desecrated during an anti-pagan ritual. The figurine had its head deliberately removed, as well as parts of its legs and arms. “This is a way in which the owner of this figurine demonstrated that they had renounced the old pagan gods, and had adopted Christianity,” Targovishte Regional Museum of History archaeologist Angel Konakliev said at a press conference reported by Archaeology in Bulgaria. A number of other artifacts were also unearthed this season, including Early Byzantine bone combs that were likely used for decoration, and a silver coin depicting the thirteenth-century Bulgarian Tsar Georgi I Terter, the only known coin of its type to be discovered. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Tuskegee Airman's Plane Found In Lake Huron

PORT HURON, MICHIGAN—The wreckage of a P-39 fighter plane piloted by one of the Tuskegee Airmen has been found at the bottom of Lake Huron, says The SFGate. On April 11, 1944, a plane piloted by 2nd Lt. Frank Moody crashed into the lake during a training mission. Although Moody’s body was found several months later, his aircraft was not spotted until recently by a helicopter pilot and his son, who alerted archaeologists from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A seven-person team dove the site and have documented the wreckage, which includes the engine, tail, gauge panel, wings, and a radio. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II and were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. To see a slideshow of more wrecks found in the Great Lakes, go to “The Wrecks of Thunder Bay.”

Aztec Skull Rack Unearthed in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—In the ruins of the great Aztec site of Templo Mayor, archaeologists have unearthed a massive tzompantli, or trophy skull rack, that was built between 1485 and 1502. These racks were used by the Aztecs to display the heads of their enemies, who may have been sacrificed atop nearby pyramids. Paintings and descriptions of the racks from the early colonial period suggest the Aztecs used wooden poles to suspend the skulls between vertical posts. The recently discovered tzompantli differs from others that have been depicted and discovered in that rows of skulls seem to have been mortared to one another and formed a circle in which the skulls were arranged to look at the center. “There are 35 skulls that we can see, but there are many more,” National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Raúl Barrera told The Guardian. “As we continue to dig the number is going to rise a lot.” To read in-depth about the excavations, go to “Under Mexico City.” 

15,000-Year-Old Funeral Rites Revealed

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Some of the largest hewn stone artifacts in the ancient Middle East may have been used for a surprising purpose. According to a new study released by the University of Haifa, these large stone boulder mortars—some of which are almost three feet high and weigh as much as 200 pounds—were used to pound food and were also an integral part of funeral rituals of the Natufian culture that inhabited this region between 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. Researchers believe that the sound made by the pounding of the food would have signaled to members of surrounding communities that an important ceremony was underway, and that this was a crucial part of building social and community cohesion and identity. To read more about burial customs in the Natufian period, go to “World Roundup.”

Thursday, August 20

Fourth-Century Ruins Discovered in Japan

GOSE, JAPAN—Archaeologists have discovered remains of pit houses and ditches that indicated boundaries at a site dating to the fourth century A.D. in Japan’s Nara Prefecture known as the Nakanishi ruins. They believe that the newly discovered site may have been constructed in concert with the nearby Akitsu ruins, and note that the combined site would be one of the largest settlements in Japan known from the period. “The site occupies a prominent area,” said Fumiaki Imao, a senior researcher at the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, told the Asahi Shimbun, adding that the structures discovered may have been used for rituals controlled by the early Yamato imperial court. Little is known of the workings of the court during this period, and the researchers hope their excavation will offer new insights. To read about a figurine discovered in Japan with markings thought to represent tattoos, see “Dogu Figurine.”

Pagan Warrior’s Tomb Unearthed in Poland

SANDOMIERZ, POLAND—An early eleventh-century wooden chamber tomb containing the remains of an elite warrior has been unearthed in southwestern Poland. Science in Poland reports that archaeologists discovered a number of artifacts in the grave, including ceramic vessels, a silver ring, and an iron knife, among other objects. "It should be also noted that the vessels discovered in the grave, which probably contained food and drinks, as well as other objects, clearly indicate that we are dealing with burials of people that either were still pagans, or were formally baptized, but cultivated certain pagan traditions in funeral rituals,” said Maria Curie-Skłodowska University archaeologist Marek Florek, who suspects the warrior was a foreigner. Around the tomb, Florek’s team found a number of smaller, contemporaneous graves containing wooden coffins. In one, the deceased was buried with a bronze Baltic clasp of a type that was popular in Russia between the ninth and eleventh centuries. To read about the early medieval period in the Baltic, go to "The First Vikings."

Earliest Modern Human Hand Bone Discovered

MADRID, SPAIN—Scientists have discovered a 1.84-million-year-old fossilized hand bone in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge that they believe is the oldest to resemble that of a modern human. The bone is most likely part of the little finger of the left hand of an adult belonging to an unknown species similar to Homo erectus. It measures around 1.4 inches long, comparable to the size of the same bone in the hands of modern humans, which suggests its owner would have been larger than known human relatives living at the same time—probably around five feet nine inches tall. The bone is straight, which suggests that, like modern humans, its owner was adapted to use tools and live on land rather than to climb trees. "A modernlike hand in the past would tell us when humans became fully terrestrial and when and how efficiently our ancestors used tools," Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, a paleoanthropologist at Complutense University of Madrid, told Live Science. To read about the earliest known stone tools, go to “The First Toolkit.”

Return to the USS Macon

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND—A team of specialists from the Naval History and Heritage Command and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently used ROVs to explore the wreck of the USS Macon. A lighter-than-air rigid airship that was the Navy’s last flying aircraft carrier, the Macon crashed off the coast of California eighty years ago. The U.S. Naval Institute News reports that the submersibles were able to make a photomosaic of the wreck, and took 360-degree video of a biplane that was attached to the Macon when it went down. Another task was to take measurements of corroded sections of the biplane's wing. While archaeologists and conservators have a good sense of how older, wooden shipwrecks change in underwater environments, they are still trying to understand how twentieth-century materials such as aluminum react to being submerged for long periods of time. “We haven’t quite figured out as a discipline how to best conserve the material, how those materials react with their environment and with other materials," says Naval History and Heritage Command archaeologist Alexis Catsambis. "And so this is an opportunity to learn through the sample that we collect about the rate of degradation of certain aluminum alloys and hopefully how to best help preserve them.” To read more about underwater archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."