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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, January 13

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty announced that the foundations of a 3,000-year-old fortress have been found at Tell Habua, near the Suez Canal. The fort had been part of a defensive line of fortresses and military cities. “The discovery is significant as it reflects the details of the ancient Egyptian military history. It is a model example of ancient Egypt’s military architecture, as well as the Egyptian war strategies through different ages, for the protection of the entirety of Egypt,” archaeologist Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud told The Cairo Post. The fort was part of the Horus Military Route, which protected Egypt’s eastern front. Five of the 11 forts that made up the route, described on the walls of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, have been found. “The route was fortified by two parallel walls, followed by 11 fortresses acting as early alert points before the arrival of any conquering army to the strategically located Tharu Fortress. In the same area there was an economic society, indicating that it had been a commercial and customs zone where taxes were collected before reaching the Delta,” Maqsoud elaborated. To read in-depth about ancient Egyptian animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."

Painted Leather Discovered in Iran’s Burnt City

TEHRAN, IRAN—The Tehran Times reports that archaeologist Seyyed Mansur Sajjadi and his team have found a piece of painted leather at the 5,200-year-old Burnt City in southeastern Iran. “Due to extensive corrosion, some experts and the archaeologists are trying to save the leather,” he said. This season’s excavation has also uncovered a structure with two thick walls supported by nine buttresses. “The signs of fire are clearly seen in some rooms of the building,” Sajjadi said. Pieces of textiles were found in the rooms, one of which may have been used for offering sacrifices. The Burnt City, which burned down three times and was not rebuilt after the last fire in 1800 B.C., was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites last year. To read in-depth about the Burnt City, see "The World in Between."

Study Suggests Co-Evolution of Tools and Talking

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Thomas Morgan of the University of California, Berkeley, and Natalie Uomini of the University of Liverpool, along with colleagues from the University of St. Andrews, University College London, and McGill University, tested five different ways to teach Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students. Oldowan stone tools were used for butchering animals for 700,000 years, beginning some 2.5 million years ago. The researchers learned that when teaching college students, demonstrations enhanced with spoken instructions, over imitation, non-verbal presentations, or gestures, yielded the highest volume of quality flakes in the least amount of time with the least waste. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do,” Morgan explained. This would suggest that the makers of the oldest-known stone tools lacked the ability to talk. “These are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly,” he said. Then 1.7 million years ago, Acheulean hand axes and cleavers were developed. “To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘here’ or ‘there,’” Morgan said. “Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching.” To read about later tool-making, see "Neanderthal Tool Time."

The First “Big City” in North America

EAST ST LOUIS, ILLINOIS—For the past two years, scientists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey have been analyzing the artifacts they recovered during their work to clear land for the construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River. They’ve concluded that the city, located near Cahokia Mounds, was an immigration center that flourished for about 150 years. “This is the first big city in North America. Now we have details, and it’s—wow. Some conjecture had been that all Cahokia moved to East St. Louis, but that’s not it,” chief state archaeologist Brad Koldehoff told The News-Democrat. The team has identified pottery from southern Missouri or northern Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, suggesting that the immigrants brought their own pottery with them. Eventually those pots were replaced with pots made in the local style, however. “The bowls become smaller…less like group eating from big communal bowls,” said research archaeologist Alleen Betzenhauser. Arrowheads from North Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin were also found. “Most every other tool was made locally,” added research archaeologist Steve Boles. But the site had been nearly abandoned by about 1200. “There is evidence of severe drought,” explained Tamira Brennan, the interim field station manager for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. For more on prehistoric immigration to the area, see "Cahokia Was a Melting Pot."

Monday, January 12

Roman-Era Artifacts Found in England

LUTON, ENGLAND—Luton Today reports that three roundhouses, boundary ditches, and pits were unearthed during work to expand a cemetery in Bedfordshire by archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East. Seven Roman cremations, three brooches, a bath flask, Roman pottery, and medieval pottery were also found. The artifacts are expected to be presented to Luton Museum. The Roman burial urns may be reinterred. To read about a massive Roman-era hoard recently unearthed in England, see "Top 10 Discoveries of 2014: Seaton Down Hoard."

Autopsy Detects Poison in Remains of Italian Nobleman

VERONA, ITALY—Traces of poison were detected in the remains of Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who ruled Verona and had conquered Vicenza, Padua, and Treviso at the time of his death in 1329. Historical sources suggest that Cangrande became ill after drinking from a polluted spring, although there were rumors at the time that he’d been murdered. Gino Fornaciari of the University of Pisa and his team found that in addition to signs of arthritis and a mild form of black lung and emphysema, Cangrande had foxglove pollen in his rectum, and toxic concentrations of digoxin and digitoxin, molecules from foxglove plants, in his liver and feces samples. “He became sick with vomit and diarrhea just a few days after winning control over the city of Treviso,” Fornaciari told Discovery News. Chamomile and black mulberry were also found in Cangrande’s system, which may have been administered with the deadly plant. And although it is possible that Cangrande’s death was accidental, Fornaciari and his colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science that he may have been killed by his rivals from the Republic of Venice or the Ducate of Milan, or perhaps even by his nephew and successor. To read more about Fornaciari's work, see "Medici Mystery."

Prehistoric Coral Bracelets Unearthed in Papua

JAYAPURA, INDONESIA—Rare, prehistoric bracelets made of coral have been discovered in Puay Village on the island of New Guinea. “Most of the coral sea bracelets found in the hill slopes have been eroded by the water flowing in Lake Sentani,” archaeologist Hari Suroto told Antara News. “This kind of coral can be found in the coasts of the Pacific Ocean. The bracelets are white, and their shapes are good and smooth,” he added. The bracelets indicate that the people living near Lake Sentani had contact with people living on the coast, probably by traveling on the Jaifuri River. 

Union Coat from the USS Monitor Conserved

NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA—A pilot’s jacket recovered from the turret of the USS Monitor will soon be on display at the USS Monitor Center in southeast Virginia. The coat was discovered ten years ago, trapped in a marine concretion found inside the gun turret of the ironclad ship, which sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a storm on December 31, 1862. “We’ve found all kinds of buttons inside the turret—some made of wood, some of glass, some of bone, some of rubber, some even mother-of-pearl. Clearly the sailors were just tearing their clothes off before jumping into the water—and doing it so fiercely that their buttons were popping off. This coat was left behind by one of those sailors—and it gives you a very real, very personal connection to the story of those men and this ship during its chaotic end,” Monitor Center director David Krop told The Daily Press. The mass of concretion that contained the jacket was soaked to remove destabilizing chemicals and slowly removed with small hand tools and chisels. “It looks like it’s in great shape, but it’s actually pretty degraded,” added senior conservator Will Hoffman. The pieces of the coat are too fragile to be reassembled, and so have been mounted on archival backing for display. For more on nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Friday, January 09

Hundreds of Wickiups Documented in the Rocky Mountain Region

MESA COUNTY, COLORADO—The remains of hundreds of wickiups, conical-shaped dwellings built by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of southwestern Colorado, have been documented by the Forest Service and the Dominguez Archaeological Research Group, in partnership with the Ute Indian Tribe of northeastern Utah, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes of southwestern Colorado, and other public land management agencies. “Wickiups and other aboriginal wooden features, such as tree platforms and brush fences, were once commonplace in Colorado. Few examples are still in existence; the majority of the remaining features can be associated with Ute culture and consequently represent the only surviving architecture of the state’s living indigenous peoples,” said Brian Ferebee, deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region. Metal and stone artifacts are often found at the sites, which range in age from less than 100 years to more than 200 years old. The sites are still used for ceremonial purposes today. “What we find helps us to manage these resources as part of our historic and cultural resource preservation goals,” added Molly Westby, the Rocky Mountain Region Heritage Program leader. To read about archaeological evidence of the Comanche, close neighbors and sometimes enemies of the Utes, see "Searching for the Comanche Empire."

New Thoughts on the Impact of Climate Change in Neolithic China

BEIJING, CHINA—It had been thought that the deserts in northern China are one million years old, but a new study of the Hunshandake Sandy Lands of Inner Mongolia suggests that its desert is only 4,000 years old. Xiaoping Yang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Louis Scuderi of the University of New Mexico, and their colleagues examined the patterns of dunes and depressions in the region and lake sediments, and they dated quartz from the region with a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence. They found that Hunshandake had deep lakes and rivers beginning some 12,000 years ago. “We’re amazed by how much water there was back then. There were very, very large lakes, and grasslands and forests. And based on all the artifacts we’ve found out there, there was clearly a very large population along the lake shores,” Scuderi told Live Science. Then some 4,200 years ago, the region rapidly dried out during a major, worldwide climatic shift that caused droughts throughout the northern hemisphere. These changes may have pushed the people of the Hongshan culture out of the remote north and into the rest of China. “An important possible line of research in the future is to figure out how important the Hongshan culture was to the development of later Chinese culture,” Scuderi explained. In fact, some of the earliest jade artifacts in the country are from Hongshan sites, yet the cradle of Chinese civilization has usually been placed in the Yellow River basin. To read about how climate change is impacting archaeological sites today, see "Climate Change: Sites in Peril."

Workers Uncover Ancient Tomb in Bulgaria

VARNA, BULGARIA—The Sofia News Agency reports that an ancient tomb was uncovered during construction work in the center of the Black Sea city of Varna. The tomb was first discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was resealed because of ongoing building projects in Nezavisimost Square. The burial spot was once located beyond the city walls of the ancient city of Odesos.

Calgary’s Hunt House Is Being Restored

CALGARY, CANADA—A one-room log cabin constructed in the 1870s or 1880s across the Elbow River from Fort Calgary is being carefully restored. The cabin, known as Hunt House, is thought to be Calgary’s oldest building still in its original location. “It will become Fort Calgary’s most important artifact. We will use that to tell the story of Fort Calgary as a site and we will also use it to tell the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company that first arrived in Calgary,” Fort Calgary’s Cynthia Klaassen told CBC Canada. Among the artifacts recovered during the restoration and conservation process is a rolled up newspaper dating to 1890. It was discovered in the roof of the house, where it was probably placed as added insulation. A pair of shoes and a mummified rat were found under the cabin’s floor, as was a piece of wood that may have served as a child’s block. Several glass bottles from the site include one from London dating to the 1920s, and a vanilla bottle dating to the Hudson’s Bay period.