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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 16

New Thoughts on Stonehenge

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—Controversial art critic Julian Spalding suggests that “We’ve been looking at Stonehenge the wrong way—from the earth.” He thinks that what we now see as the monument may have been the base for a giant, circular wooden platform on which ceremonies were performed. As a “great altar,” Stonehenge would have supported hundreds of worshipers looking toward the sky. “All the great raised altars of the past suggest that the people who built Stonehenge would never have performed celestial ceremonies on the lowly earth. That would have been unimaginably insulting to the immortal beings, for it would have brought them down from heaven to bite the dust and tread in the dung,” Spalding told The Guardian. Archaeologists have reacted to this idea with some skepticism. “He could be right, but I know of no evidence to support it,” responded Sir Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford University. To read about new archaeological discoveries at the site, see "Under Stonehenge."

Ancient Text Records Payment of Taxes

MONTREAL, CANADA—A recently translated Greek-language receipt from ancient Egypt reveals that a person, whose name is unreadable, and his friends paid a land-transfer tax of 75 talents and an additional 15-talent charge at a public bank in the city of Diospolis Magna, also known as Luxor or Thebes. “It’s an incredibly large sum of money,” Brice Jones of Concordia University told Live Science. “These Egyptians were most likely very wealthy.” The tax was paid on a date that corresponds to July 22, 98 B.C., all in coins that in total probably weighed more than 220 pounds. The 15-talent penalty may have been charged for not paying part of the bill in silver, as required by law. Jones has translated this ostracon and other texts housed at the McGill University Library and Archives in Montreal.

Rare Upright Bison Bones Found at Alberta Kill Site

LETHBRIDGE, CANADA—Shawn Bubel of the University of Lethbridge started excavating the 2,500-year-old bison kill site in the Fincastle Grazing Reserve because it was being looted. She and her students have uncovered the fragmented remains of at least 65 bison, and eight arrangements of bison bones standing on end in precise patterns. “In all of the features, the bones were positioned in an upright way, and were pushed all the way into the ground so that they would not have been visible from the surface,” Bubel told Western Digs. Evidence at the kill site suggests that hunters ambushed the bison while they were drinking in the marshy land among the sand dunes. The team also unearthed 118 projectile points that may have been crafted by two different cultural groups. Some of the points are broad-faced and side notched, resembling Besant Phase points that are usually found to the east. Others are more elongated and resemble Sonota points from the Dakotas. “I have my thoughts on this—that the Fincastle hunters have strong ties to the Dakotas, likely even travelled from there. But this remains a hypothesis, for now,” she said. To read in-depth about bison kills, see "The Buffalo Chasers."

“Amazing” Bronze Mask of Pan Unearthed in Israel

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A large, heavy bronze mask depicting the god Pan—the half-man, half-goat god of shepherds, music, and pleasure—has been unearthed at Hippos-Sussita National Park. “Most of the known bronze masks from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are miniature,” archaeologist Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa said in a press release. The mask was uncovered near the remains of a basalt structure with thick walls that dates to the Roman period. Further excavation could determine if the building was a defensive structure that was converted into a place of worship. Eisenberg expects that the team will find a Pan altar on the main road leading to the city because Pan was often worshiped in caves and in nature, in addition to urban temples. “Because they included drinking, sacrificing and ecstatic worship that sometimes included nudity and sex, rituals for rustic gods were often held outside of the city,” he explained. To read about other artifacts from this era and region see "Roman Coins in Israel."

Friday, March 13

Study of Foot Bones May Offer Evolutionary Insights

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—An international team of scientists has combined skills in visualization techniques, engineering principles, and statistical analysis to study the structure of long bones and human bipedalism. The project begins with documenting the differences between the feet of living humans and other apes, in particular the shaft of the foot bone that is connected to the big toe, known as the hallucal metatarsal in modern humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. In humans, the big toe propels walking and running. In other apes, the big toe is more thumb-like and used for grasping and climbing. “In our first study, we have documented exciting structural differences between humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, some of which were predictable based on their gait differences. The unexpected structural differences we observed are equally intriguing. We are eager now to begin examining how far back in evolutionary time these differences can be traced,” said Kristian Carlson of the University of Witwatersrand. To read about the evolution of a very different motion, throwing, see "No Changeups on the Savannah." 

Paintings Discovered in Spain’s Aurea Cave

CANTABRIA, SPAIN—Cavers in northern Cantabria discovered Paleolithic paintings in Aurea Cave, near the River Deva, according to a statement made by culture minister Miguel Angel Serna and reported in The Local. The reoccurring images, found in different parts of the cave, are made up of red, vertical lines and dots. Some of the paintings appear to have been made with a fingertip, while others may have been produced by blowing paint onto the wall. “A finding of these characteristics is not found every day, and represents a significant contribution to our heritage, making Cantabria the European capital of rock art,” Serna said. To read an interview with the director Werner Herzog about Paleolithic art, see "The Birth of Art."

Humans Survived in the Rainforest Earlier Than Thought

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The teeth of 26 individuals who lived as far back as 20,000 years ago were analyzed by a team of scientists from Sri Lanka, Oxford University, and the University of Bradford. All of the samples came from three archaeological sites in Sri Lanka that are today surrounded by either dense rainforest or more open terrain. It had been thought that humans did not inhabit tropical rainforests for any length of time until 8,000 years ago, but the teeth indicate that all of the people in the sample ate a diet sourced from slightly open ‘intermediate rainforest’ environments. Two of the teeth, both around 3,000 years old, showed a recognizable signature of a diet from open grassland. This was at the beginning of the Iron Age, when agriculture developed in the region. “This is the first study to directly test how much early human forest foragers depended on the rainforest for their diet. The results are significant in showing that early humans in Sri Lanka were able to live almost entirely on food found in the rainforest without the need to move into other environments. Our earliest human ancestors were clearly able to successfully adapt to different extreme environments,” Patrick Roberts of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art said in a University of Oxford press release. To read more about the archaeology of rainforests, see "Amazonian Harvest."

Medieval Log Buildings Unearthed in Kyiv

KYIV, UKRAINE—Medieval Kyiv was larger than had been thought. Last month, a construction project in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city uncovered a street and remains of log buildings in wet ground near the Dnipro River. “Podil is very well studied, which is why everyone was very surprised when we first saw the fragments of the twelfth-century wooden fence and house,” archaeologist Ivan Zotsenko told the Kyiv Post. Continued excavation of the area, thought to have been a densely populated street, has unearthed several wooden fences, coins, beads, pots, and an amphora. “The main value of the archaeological finding is that the medieval Kyiv borders have become more clear,” Zotsenko said. The construction project has been halted and plans for a museum on the site are being considered. To read about another recent significant discovery in Ukraine, see "Massive 6,000-Year-Old Temple Unearthed."

Thursday, March 12

Homo Erectus Tooth Rediscovered in Sweden

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Two 500,000-year-old teeth from “Peking Man” were found in the 1920s by Otto Zdansky of Uppsala University in caves in Zhoukoudian near Beijing. The teeth, along with a third unearthed in the 1950s, were housed in the Museum of Evolution in Uppsala. Other material from the excavation that were housed in China were lost during World War II. But some of the boxes of materials sent to the university from the excavations at Zhoukoudian were never unpacked. Then in 2011, Per Ahlberg, Martin Kundrat, and Jan Ove Ebbestad started going through the boxes that were in storage at Uppsala University and found a Homo erectus tooth. They invited paleontologists Liu Wu and Tong Haowen of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing to study it. “It is a spectacular find. We can see numerous details that tell us about this individual’s life. The crown of the tooth is relatively small, which indicates that it belonged to a woman. The tooth is quite worn, so the individual must have been quite old when she died. In addition, two large chips have been knocked out of the enamel, as if hit by something, or perhaps by biting into something really hard such as a bone or a hard nut. At least one of the chips was old when the individual died, since it is partly worn down,” Ahlberg said. “The lost materials of the Peking Man remain one of palaeontology’s greatest mysteries and most tragic losses,” he added. To read more about the lost fossils, see "Searching for Peking Man."

World’s Oldest Pretzel Found in Bavaria

REGENSBURG, GERMANY—Some eighteenth-century baked goods that were apparently thrown away because they were burnt have been discovered in eastern Bavaria. The remains of a pretzel, a roll, and a croissant, all dating to some 250 years ago, were found at a site where the remains of a wooden house thought to be 1,200 years old have also been unearthed. “This discovery is really extraordinary, because it depicts a snippet of everyday life,” Joachim Wolbergs, mayor of Regensburg, told The Local. Pretzels were first made in monasteries during the Middle Ages, and originally their form was intended to represent the crossed arms of a monk. The pretzel's simple recipe, water and flour, meant it could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat dairy products or eggs. Pretzels are now often eaten in southern Germany for breakfast with white sausage and sweet mustard. For more on archaeology and the culinary arts, see "The Gladiator Diet."