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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, December 12

News from Egypt’s Karnak Temple and Ramesseum

LUXOR, EGYPT—Youssef Khalifa, head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, announced the discovery of a tomb of within the walls of a temple at the Ramesseum temple complex on Luxor’s west bank, according to a report in Ahram Online. Little is known about Karomama, called a divine royal wife, who had been buried there, along with 20 ushabti funerary figurines and other offerings. Study of the tomb could reveal the name of her royal husband. At the Karnak temple complex, French archaeologists recovered three small, bronze statuettes—two depict the god Osiris, who is sitting and wearing a wig. The third represents an unidentified, standing god decorated with hieroglyphic text that should reveal the god’s name. The team also found a pot containing blue glue. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, see "Reused Royal Tomb Opened in Luxor."

Cave Deposits in Israel Record History of Fire Use

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A study of flint tools and debris recovered from Israel’s Tabun Cave suggests that human ancestors regularly began using fire some 350,000 years ago. “Tabun Cave is unique in that it’s a site with a very long sequence. We could examine step by step how the use of fire changed in the cave,” Ron Shimelmitz of the University of Haifa told Science. While almost none of the flints from the oldest layers of the cave were burned, many of the flints from layers dating after roughly 350,000 years ago are red or black, cracked, or have small, round depressions where fragments flaked off the stone. Shimelmitz and his colleagues suggest that because wildfires are rare in caves, the flints were probably burned in fires controlled by ancestral humans. Other sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe suggest a similar timeline for the regular use of fire. To read about even earlier use of fire, see "We Didn't Start the Fire... Homo erectus Did."  

1,300-Year-Old Imperial Building Found in Japan’s First Capital

KASHIHARA, JAPAN—Thirteen holes for stone foundation posts have been discovered in the Toho Kanga area of Fujiwara-kyo, the capital of Japan between 694 and 710 A.D. “When the capital was relocated to Fujiwara-kyo, the east side may have been dedicated to residential quarters for imperial family members or for other important purposes. The discovery could be a crucial turning point in research on Fujiwara-kyo,” Masashi Kinoshita of Tokyo Gakugei University told The Asahi Shimbun. The building may have been a pavilion or a storehouse on stilts with a tiled roof. Another building, represented by five square-shaped holes with rounded edges, was also uncovered.  

The Origins of Staple Foods Studied

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Sheffield studied crops grown by early farmers in the Fertile Crescent to see if they could determine why some plants were chosen for domestication and not others. Catherine Preece and her colleagues grew wild versions of staple foods in a greenhouse, and found that the types of plants that are less bushy as adults, and have bigger seeds on fewer stems, are ideal for agriculture. “Our results surprised us because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley. It is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what we would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed,” Preece said. The next step in the research is to plant experimental fields in Turkey, the heart of the Fertile Crescent. “Cereal breeders are taking an increasing interest in modern crops’ wild relatives as a source of useful traits that may help to increase yields or increase resilience to climate change, and our work should help this process,” she added. To read about domestication of crops in the New World, see "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Thursday, December 11

3-D Sonar Images of Steam Ship Wrecks Released

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Maps and images created with 3-D Echoscope sonar, a technology developed by Coda Octopus, of the SS City of Rio de Janeiro and the SS City of Chester, have been released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its research partners. The SS City of Rio de Janeiro sank on February 22, 1901, after it struck jagged rocks near the Golden Gate, killing 128 of the 210 passengers and crew aboard the ship. Many of the passengers were Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the U.S. “Today the wreck is broken and filled with mud, and it is a sealed grave in fast, dangerous waters in the main shipping lanes,” explained James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The SS City of Chester was also rediscovered last year, resting in the mud near the City of Rio. “The level of detail and clarity from the sonar survey is amazing. We now have a much better sense of both wrecks, and of how they not only sank, but what has happened to them since their loss,” said Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator. For more on nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Quileute Petroglyph Discovered in Washington

FORKS, WASHINGTON—Last year, Erik Wasankari and his son Reid were on a fishing trip when they discovered a petroglyph on a 1,000-pound rock in the Calawah River. The carvings are thought to date to the early eighteenth century, and may depict figures from Quileute mythology. K’wati, a figure of good, transformed the Quileutes from wolves into people and killed the Red Lizard, who “was a very bad monster,” according to Quileute Tribal Councilman Justin “Rio” Jaime. Lee Stilson, a retired state archaeologist, and Eugene Jackson, a Quileute tribal member, think the rock could have served as a trail marker that moved downstream. “On the 1893 General Land Office map, they show a trail here,” Stilson told The Seattle Times. Stilson helped to authenticate the carving, which had been made with stone tools. 

Bronze Age Grave in Denmark Contained Egyptian Bead

AARHUS, DENMARK—The chemical composition of 23 glass beads unearthed in Denmark was examined with plasma-spectrometry, and compared with the trace elements found in beads from Amarna in Egypt and Nippur in Mesopotamia. One of the beads, made of blue glass, had come from a woman’s Bronze Age burial that was excavated in 1880 at the Ølby site. She had been buried in a hollowed-out oak trunk wearing a belt disc, a string skirt with small bronze tubes, a bracelet made of amber beads, and a single blue glass bead. Science Nordic reports that the research team, made up of scientists from Moesgaard Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, Aarhus University, and the Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux in Orléans, France, matched this bead’s chemical signature to beads made 3,400 years ago in an Egyptian workshop. They now think that Egyptian glass beads, perhaps symbolizing the Egyptian sun cult, traveled north from the Mediterranean on the amber route, which carried Nordic amber south. Amber and glass beads have been found together at sites in the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Germany. To read more about these ancient Egyptian ornaments, see "Beads and Bead Making at Hierakonpolis."

Wednesday, December 10

Wartime Violence Uncovered at Armenia’s Metsamor

WARSAW, POLAND—Krzysztof Jakubiak of the University of Warsaw and Armenian archaeologist Ashot Philiposjan unearthed evidence of the destruction and capture of the ancient city of Metsamor in Armenia in the eighth century B.C. “In the entire area of research we found layers of burning and ash. The city was probably captured by the army of Argishti I, the ruler of Urartu,” he told Science & Scholarship in Poland. A woman’s skeleton missing its head, and another set of remains with an injured skull, are thought to represent victims of the attack. Their bodies had not been buried, but were found among the town’s buildings. Smashed pottery was also found on stone platforms in one of the city’s seven shrines. To read an in-depth report on the ancient city in Kurdistan, see "Erbil Revealed."

“Kamikaze” Typhoons Reflected in Japanese Lake Sediments

AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS—Lakebed sediments from Japan’s Amakusa Island suggest that the sea rose over the beach and washed into the lake twice during the late 1200s, lending credibility to historical accounts that typhoons wiped out the invading fleets of the Mongol Empire in 1274 and again in 1281. According to legend, the typhoons were driven by divine Kamikaze winds sent to protect Japan from invasion. A study published in the journal Geology by a team from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Worcester State University shows that the improbable storms occurred during a time of greater flood activity between 250 and 1600 A.D. To read an in-depth account of earlier underwater discoveries related to the Mongol invasions, see "Relics of the Kamikaze."

7,500-Year-Old Well Excavated at an Underwater Site

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—A fresh-water well in the submerged Neolithic site of Kfar Samir in Israel is being investigated by a team including Ehud Galili of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa, and Jonathan Benjamin of Flinders University. “At the Kfar Samir site, the water well was probably abandoned when sea levels started to rise and the fresh water became salty so people threw food scraps and animal bones down the well instead,” Benjamin said. The team will examine soil samples for pollen and other clues to the people’s diet and possible trade relationships, and look for organic materials such as plant fibers, seeds, and olive pits. “As they were a pre-metal society we expect to find stone tools; perhaps weapons made of flint, and needles made of bone,” he added. Benjamin will also work with John McCarthy of Wessex Archaeology to develop a 3-D mosaic of the well using photogrammetry. “The technique is not new in theory, but only very recently has the technology caught up to allow us to use it underwater, which we have with exceptional results. This is a wonderful tool for underwater archaeological site recording,” he said. To read about a ritual Neolithic artifact from the Levant, see "Artifact: Bone Wand."

Air Pollution Analyzed at India’s Taj Mahal

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—The discoloration of the Taj Mahal, a seventeenth-century mausoleum built by Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is caused by airborne carbon particles and dust, according to a study conducted by scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, the Archaeological Survey of India, and the University of Wisconsin. The scientists took air samples at the site, and placed pieces of marble near the main dome. After two months, the samples were collected and analyzed with an electron microscope. “Our team was able to show that the pollutants discoloring the Taj Mahal are particulate matter: carbon from burning biomass and refuse, fossil fuels, and dust—possibly from agriculture and road traffic. We have also been able to show how these particles could be responsible for the brownish discoloration observed,” said Michael Bergin of Georgia Tech. The monument is routinely cleaned with clay to maintain the brightness of the marble, but until now, there had not been a systematic study of the causes of the discoloration. “Some of these particles are really bad for human health, so cleaning up the Taj Mahal could have a huge health benefit for people in the entire region,” Bergin added. To see photographs of another iconic Indian site, see "The Islamic Stepwells of Gujarat."