Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, December 21

Archaeologists Open 2,000-Year-Old Outer Coffin in China

JIANGXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Archaeologists have opened the lid of the external coffin thought to contain the remains of Liu He, the Marquis of Haihun. The well-preserved inner coffin, which dates to the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 24), was decorated with lacquerware and gold foil. Gold and jade items had also been placed between the inner and outer coffin. “We are glad to see the interior coffin is well preserved. There are lacquer paintings on its surface,” project leader Xin Lixiang told CCTV America. His team may find more information about the tomb’s occupant when the interior coffin is opened. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

New Kingdom Tomb Will Open in Saqqara

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh El-Damaty announced that a heavily reused tomb discovered in Saqqara in 1996 by French Egyptologist Alain Zivie will be opened to the public for the first time. The New Kingdom tomb first belonged to Maia, King Tutankhamun’s wet nurse, and consists of three decorated cult chambers and underground, undecorated burial chambers. Tutankhamun is shown in one of the tomb’s reliefs sitting on Maia’s lap. Other images depict Maia in front of offering bearers, and as a mummy standing before Osiris, god of the underworld. El-Damaty also said that Maia may have been Tutankhamun’s sister, Mirette Atun. A relief in the tomb of Meket Atun, elder daughter of Akhenaten, at Amarna, shows Mirette Atun holding a child and breastfeeding him. “The child could be king Tutankhamun,” El-Damaty told Ahram Online. “Through a survey on the Maia tomb, which would take place immediately, and comparing its results with the survey carried out on the boy king tomb, would definitely contribute to uncovering more of Tutankhamun’s secrets,” he said. To read more about ancient Egypt, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Taking Turns While Communicating May Be Older Than Language

MUNICH, GERMANY—The pattern of communicating in short turns in rapid alternation during conversations may have evolved before language, according to Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. He has reviewed research on how modern humans listen and prepare a spoken response—it takes about 200 milliseconds on average to respond to one another, but it takes about 600 milliseconds to prepare a word for delivery, implying that people have to begin preparing a response while listening to the current speaker. Levinson notes that this is a pattern found across unrelated cultures and languages, and that infants begin taking turns in interactions at about six months of age, before they can speak. As language skills develop, however, infant turn-taking slows down as they struggle to master more complex language structures and speak rapidly. Levinson thinks that human ancestors may have taken turns gesturing to each other, as the great apes do, before they began communicating through the vocal channel some one million years ago. To read about how linguists reconstruct ancient languages, go to "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European."

Tens of Thousands of Cannonballs Unearthed in India

KANNUR, INDIA—Laborers digging a trench for electricity cables for a light-and-sound show at Fort St. Angelo discovered more than 39,000 cannonballs that had been discarded in four pits. The fort, located in southern India on the coast of the Arabian Sea, was constructed by the Portuguese in 1505. “We are not sure whether such a huge stock has ever been unearthed from anywhere in the world and we have to corroborate with evidences from history to find out why such a huge quantity was dumped in the pits, thus making sure it would not be reused,” archaeologist T. Sreelakshmi of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told The Times of India. “It is a long process to clean and chemically treat the cannonballs, which might take a few weeks, before which we would not be able to tell anything about the history,” added ASI archaeologist C. Kumaran. To read about the medieval Indian city of Hampi, go to "Living Heritage at Risk."

Friday, December 18

The Environmental Impact of the Neolithic Revolution

BURLINGTON, VERMONT—A team of scientists studied the fossil record dating back 300 million years and found that patterns in the organization of plant and animal communities were consistent until 6,000 years ago—about the time that modern humans began farming. Some pairs of species appear more often together in nature than would be expected by chance, while other pairs in the study are rarely found in the same place. The aggregated species pairs may have been dependent upon the same type of habitat, while the segregated pairs may have competed for the same food source. From 300 million years ago up until about 6,000 years ago, there was a higher frequency of aggregated species pairs. Then the pattern switched to a predominance of segregated species pairs. “This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time,” paleobiologist S. Kathleen Lyons of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History said in a University of Vermont press release. “We think it’s something that humans do that causes barriers to dispersal for both plant and animal species,” she explained. To read about the technology of the Neolithic period, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

New Thoughts on Poland’s Sickle Burials

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Live Science reports that among the 250 graves excavated in Poland’s 400-year-old Drawsko cemetery, four of the dead had been buried with sickles placed at their throats, and one had been buried with a sickle placed over its hips. It had been suggested that the sickles were intended to prevent the dead from returning as vampires to harm the living. Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University, and Elzbieta Gajda of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, argue instead that the dead were given Christian burials and were not otherwise marked as outsiders. In fact, the chemical signatures of their teeth indicate that they had grown up locally. The scientists think that these burials should be called “anti-demonic:” the sickles may have been put in the graves to keep the dead from rising, but they could also have been used to prevent harm to the souls of the dead. The use of forged iron tools could have even symbolized a passage from life to death. “The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote in Antiquity. To read about the "vampire" interpretation of the burials, go to "Polish 'Vampire' Burials Studied."

1,600-Year-Old Hebrew Inscription Found Near Sea of Galilee

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Falling water levels in the Sea of Galilee have revealed that the ancient harbor at the site of Kursi was much larger than previously thought. Some scholars have thought that Kursi could be the “Land of the Gederenes” mentioned in the Christian New Testament. Archaeologists Haim Cohen and Michal Artzy of the University of Haifa also discovered a large marble slab bearing an inscription written in the Aramaic language with Hebrew letters. The inscription is thought to date to A.D. 500, and was found at the entrance to an inner room in a building that might have been a synagogue. Dedications from this time period were usually embedded in mosaic floors. “The dedication comprises eight lines, so that it is very detailed or expansive. In most cases we do not find so many words in Hebrew letters engraved on stone, so the person to whom the inscription was dedicated must have had a tremendous influence on the local people. There is no parallel for such a detailed and expensive dedication in archaeological findings to date in Israel,” Artzy said in a press release. To read about another discovery in Israel, go to "The Mosaics of Huqoq."

Scientists Create “Virtual Fossil”

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—DNA studies have suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor some 400,000 years ago. But what did this ancestor look like? Researchers have created a “virtual fossil” of this last common ancestor by plotting a total of 797 “landmarks” on a modern skull and the fossilized skulls of human relatives spanning a range of two million years. These data points were used to predict a timeline for skull structure. “We wanted to try an innovative solution to deal with the imperfections of the fossil record: a combination of 3-D digital methods and statistical estimation techniques. This allowed us to predict mathematically and then recreate virtually skull fossils of the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, using a simple and consensual ‘tree of life’ for the genus Homo,” Aurélien Mounier of Cambridge University said in a press release. Three possible ancestral skull shapes were generated for three possible times of the split. These skull shapes were then compared to the few available fossils in the range of 800,000 to 100,000 years old. The virtual skull that was the best fit for the fossils suggests that the split between Neanderthals and modern humans occurred some 700,000 years ago. To read more about our extinct ancestors, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Thursday, December 17

Thigh Bone From Red Deer Cave Raises Questions

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales and Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology conducted a detailed study of a partial femur discovered in 1989 in tropical southwest China’s Red Deer Cave. They discovered that the 14,000-year-old thigh bone, which is very small and narrow, was similar to thigh bones of Homo habilis and early Homo erectus, species that lived 1.5 million years ago. Skull bones from the cave’s possibly unknown species do not seem to be as primitive as the thigh bone, however. “Its young age suggests the possibility that primitive-looking humans could have survived until very late in our evolution, but we need to be careful as it is just one bone,” Ji said in a press release. It had been thought that Neanderthals and Denisovans, which died out about 40,000 years ago, were the youngest pre-modern human species. "The new find hints at the possibility a pre-modern species may have overlapped in time with modern humans on mainland East Asia, but the case needs to be built up slowly with more bone discoveries,” Curnoe said. To read more, go to "Denisovan DNA."

Earliest European Multi-Year Settlement Identified in Florida

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—Newly recovered artifacts from a privately owned site near Pensacola Bay are from the Spanish settlement led by explorer Tristán de Luna y Arellano from 1559 to 1561, according to researchers from the University of West Florida (UWF). A hurricane struck the settlement one month after the 1,500 colonists arrived, however. Two years later, the survivors left on Spanish rescue ships from Mexico and returned to Spain. Pensacola native Tom Garner, who had attended UWF and studied with archaeology, collected artifacts from the surface of the site and took them to the UWF archaeology lab last October. “What we saw in front of us in the lab that day was an amazing assemblage of mid-sixteenth-century Spanish colonial period artifacts. These items were very specific to this time period. The University conducted field work at this site in the mid-1980s, as have other since then, but no one had ever found diagnostics of the sort that Tom found on the surface. People have looked for this site for a long time,” UWF archaeologist John Worth said in a press release. Test excavations have uncovered additional artifacts. For more on Tristán de Luna, go to "Sunken Dreams."

DNA Study Suggests Dogs Originated in South East Asia

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Peter Savolainen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology says that new analysis of nuclear DNA confirms his claim that dogs split from grey wolves in South East Asia some 33,000 years ago. Savolainen had analyzed mitochondrial DNA in earlier research, while other researchers, who have said that dogs were first domesticated in the Middle East, Central Asia, or Europe, examined nuclear DNA. Savolainen argues that those studies did not include samples from South East Asia. “Which is why we analyzed the entire nuclear genome of a global sample collection from 46 dogs, which includes samples from southern China and South East Asia. We then found out that dogs from South East Asia stand out from all other dog populations, because they have the highest genetic diversity and are genetically closest to the wolf,” he said in a press release. The genetic information also suggests that dogs spread across the world some 18,000 years ago. For more, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Evidence of Roman Battle Discovered in The Netherlands

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—Archaeologist Nico Roymans of the Vrije Universiteit announced in a press release the discovery of skeletal remains, swords, spearheads, and a helmet in the modern area of Kessel, at the site where Roman general Julius Caesar wiped out the Tencteri and the Usipetes, two Germanic tribes, in 55 B.C. Caesar described the battle in Book IV of his De Bello Gallico. After he rejected the tribes’ request for asylum and permission to settle in the Dutch river area, his force of eight legions and cavalry conquered the camp and pursued the survivors to the convergence of the Meuse and Rhine Rivers, where he slaughtered more than 100,000 people. The Late Iron Age skeletal remains represent men, women, and children, and show signs of spear and sword injuries. Their bodies and bent weapons had been placed in a Meuse riverbed. Isotope analysis of the teeth of three individuals show that they were not native to the Dutch river area. To read in-depth about a similar discovery, go to "Caesar's Gallic Outpost."